Meet CS’ Interim Chair Randal Burns

August 30, 2018

On July 1, 2018, Randal Burns, professor of Computer Science, became the interim chair of the Department. Check out the Q&A to learn about Randal, his latest research, his department goals and more.

Randal Burns

1. What brought you to Johns Hopkins?

I completed my PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz; while also working happily at IBM-Almaden, one of the iconic Computer Science research facilities. It’s where the magnetic disk drive was invented. I loved it. My wife, who is from Virginia, wanted to move back to the area. I was interested in operating systems engineering in an area that the local industry didn’t support and decided to explore a career in academia. And I’ve been in it for 17 years now.

2. What generated your interest in the department interim chair position?

The Computer Science Department is in a time of great growth. The former chair, Yair Amir has finished his term and right now we are transitioning from the chair model to the head model organizational structure. It’s an especially good transition for the department because we’ve doubled in size in the last six years. We are a big enterprise. I am looking forward to serving the university in new ways; it’s an opportunity to give back and  to help grow the department.

3. Describe your leadership style.

My leadership style is inspired by my approach to coaching little league baseball. I try to get each person to be their individual best. I give people a lot of autonomy, it lets them try and take risks and excel and fail. I also believe in consensus decision making and am a cheerleader, an enabler, and an encourager.

4. Please share one department goal.

The Department of Computer Science is operating very efficiently. It’s a well-run and well-managed organization. The most important thing that I can do is steer the ship straight. We attract an incredible number of students to the department, we teach a large fraction of all the students at Hopkins, and are doing a great job. One of the key challenges of Computer Science today is managing the growth of the field.

5. Please share some of your latest research. How might you stay active in publishing scholarly research while serving as department head?

My recent research has been on building data systems for scientific applications. I like to work with data sets that are uncomfortable for people to look at, analyze, and store. When people are doing science, they run into road blocks. I serve as a consultant to help them manage the data, understand the information in their data, and individualize their data. It’s a great job because it’s an application of computer science to other science and engineering problems.

For the last seven years, Randal has focused on data-systems for high-throughput neuroscience. He is a co-founder of NeuroData along with Joshua Vogelstein, professor of Biomedical Engineering. NeuroData democratizes access to world-class data sets, including electron-microscopy connectomics, CLARITY, MRI, and array tomography data.

6. What’s an interesting fact that most colleagues don’t know about you?
I am a competitive duplicate bridge player. I play with a team based

Randal Burns along with students from his lab.

out of California.  I attend and compete at the North American Bridge championships. My team has become ambitious and we now play bridge against some of the best players of the world.  

Randal is both a member of and on the steering committee of the Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute. He is a member of the Institute for Data-Intensive Science and Engineering. For more information about Randal, click here.

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