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A Revolutionizing Field
May 07, 2012
Professor Abdou Youssef discusses the future of computer science.
By Ari Massefski, Class of 2015
Last fall, Apple computers announced the release of Siri, the talking iPhone assistant. For many, this electronic personal assistant was a remarkable technological advancement. But Abdou Youssef, chair of the George Washington Department of Computer Science, says Siri is only the beginning.
“It’s a preview of coming attractions,” said Dr. Youssef. “It’s very hard to predict where we’ll be in 10 years.”
The field is relatively new, but Dr. Youssef said few technological advances can compare to computer science in its impact on our lives. For that reason, he decided to devote his life to computer science research and to teaching future computer scientists the tricks of the trade.
Dr. Youssef has been on the faculty at GW for 25 years, and has been department chair for the past four. He said he chose a career in academia because it was the field in which he felt he could make the biggest difference.
“Teaching and mentoring people has a multiplying effect,” he said. “And through research, one can create knowledge and make discoveries, and in my field, we also get to apply the new knowledge and discoveries more readily for the benefit of others.”
After beginning his career in his home country at the Lebanese University, Dr. Youssef moved to the United States to gain better access to research resources.
“I can be a lot more effective and productive here, because the U.S. offers the most opportunities and resources, especially in computer science,” he said.
David S. Dolling, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said he relies on Dr. Youssef for counsel and insight.
“He is a tireless and extremely effective leader,” said Dr. Dolling. “He is an excellent listener, able to bring people to a consensus around an issue, and once a plan of action is formed he executes it rapidly and successfully. SEAS, and the computer science department in particular, is lucky to have such an energetic, thoughtful, dedicated and effective leader.”
Under Dr. Youssef’s leadership, the undergraduate computer science program has received grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Air Force, among others.
“Computer science at GW is an increasingly big player in the field,” he said. “We educate a large segment of the high-tech work force in the Washington area, which is a major technology hub in the nation. Our students go to some of the best graduate programs in the country, get industry jobs in the top computer and Internet companies, such as Microsoft and Google, and get academic jobs in well-ranked universities.”
James Hahn, professor of engineering and applied science, said Dr. Youssef has been a role model and leader for everyone in the computer science department.
“His absolute integrity and respect for the students and faculty have made him well respected in the department,” said Dr. Hahn. “He really cares for each and every person, and he is able to bring out the best in everyone.”
And the department continues to grow under his leadership, adding eight new full-time professors in the last few years.
“Our faculty do very applicable cutting-edge research and make great contributions in cybersecurity, privacy, electronic voting, biomedical applications including computer-assisted surgery, networks, robotics and artificial intelligence and cloud computing,” said Dr. Youssef. “The university has always shown enthusiastic support of our research and educational initiatives.”
Outside of work, Dr. Youssef is an avid reader and has traveled to four continents. He and his wife regularly volunteer with ALIVE, Alexandrians Involved Ecumenically, and also donate their time to help out at local schools.
Dr. Youssef’s honors include six Teacher of the Year awards from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as well as a Gold Medal from the United States Secretary of Commerce.
“It is very gratifying when one’s passions and talents are in areas of great relevance to society,” he said. “I consider myself very fortunate.”
Dr. Youssef said the future of computer science is difficult to predict but could include developments that defy belief, such as computers that can interact intelligently with humans, self-driving cars, tele-surgery, computer-controlled in-body drug delivery and robots that can do practically anything.
“Having a computer science department at GW allows us to be major contributors to one of the greatest revolutions in the history of mankind,” Dr. Youssef said. “And we’ve only just begun to tap the potential of computers to help us advance.”
But the field of computer science still has challenges to overcome, he said, including a gender gap.
“Only 11 percent of computer science students nationwide are women,” he said. “That’s very, very low. We need to focus our attention on attracting more women and minorities to the field.”
Computer scientists must find ways to spark students’ interest in the field from a young age, he said. “It’s happening in other countries,” Dr. Youssef said. “By introducing computer science earlier, students are more likely to major in computing fields. And this should be a national priority, because if we don’t do it, the United States will fall behind and become less competitive in this critical area.”
As the field continues to grow, Dr. Youssef sees it becoming one of the most important of our time.
“While there have been many advances that have affected our lives deeply, few technologies have had the same breadth and depth of impact as computer science,” he said. “And what we have seen is just the beginning. If computer science has done so much in just 50 years, we can only imagine what it will do in the coming decades.”