Robert Pless Installed as Patrick and Donna Martin Professor of Computer Science

Dr. Pless, who joined GW in January as chair of the Department of Computer Science, discussed how his field can help solve technical and social problems.

April 25, 2017

pless installation

From left to right: Robert Pless, Steven Knapp, Forrest Maltzman, David Dolling. At his professorship installation, Dr. Pless discussed how computer science can solve social problems. (William Atkins/GW Today)

The George Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) on April 19 installed Robert Pless, chair of the Department of Computer Science, as the Patrick and Donna Martin Professor of Computer Science.

“Dr. Pless’ research focuses on computer vision algorithms for geometric inference. This work has application in fields as diverse as biomedical imaging, remote sensing, robotics and even social justice,” Dr. Knapp said before presenting Dr. Pless with a ceremonial medal.

SEAS Dean David Dolling added in his remarks that his school is “truly indebted” to Patrick and Donna Martin for their generosity.

“The installation of a faculty member in an endowed professorship is truly a seminal event both in the career of the person receiving the honor and certainly, too, in the life of the school and in the university,” Dr. Dolling said.

During his remarks, Dr. Pless discussed a project he is working on to help law enforcement catch sex traffickers, underscoring that computer science isn’t just about solving technical problems but also addressing social issues.

Dr. Pless’ project “TraffickCam” is an app that leverages the socially connected world to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute sex traffickers.

Sex traffickers often take photos of children in hotels and post them online. Having detailed photos of hotel rooms across the country that law enforcement can match against the traffickers’ photos can help law enforcement find the hotels where victims may have been taken.

The app enables travelers to take photos of their hotel rooms and upload them to the database that law enforcement uses. Since it was launched six months ago, travelers have contributed more than 2 million photos.

“It’s the kind of project that is really hard to get funding for from traditional sources because it’s not addressing a traditional hard technical challenge,” Dr. Pless said. “The endowment support … can really make this project go in ways that it couldn’t otherwise.”

Dr. Pless added that Science and Engineering Hall is an important resource that was influential in his decision to come to GW.

Provost Forrest Maltzman lauded Dr. Pless for doing work that addresses critical needs.

“Our mission as a university is to train students to make the world better with our research,” Dr. Maltzman said. “Dr. Pless’ research is clearly making the world a safer place.”

The gift from Patrick Martin, M.S. ’66, Ph.D. ’72, and his wife, Donna, reflects his long-standing relationship with GW. He is a former member of both the SEAS National Advisory Council and the GW Board of Trustees. He was honored with GW’s Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award in 1997 and was inducted into the GW Engineering Hall of Fame in 2006.

Dr. Pless—who joined SEAS in January after 16 years at Washington University in St. Louis—also expressed his thanks to the donors, who were not able to attend the ceremony.

“I’m deeply honored to be the Patrick and Donna Martin Professor of Computer Science, especially because the Patrick Martin Foundation has such a history of supporting education and research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Dr. Pless said. “I hope to be able to live up to their ideals through the teaching and research that this endowment makes possible.”