University Scholar Peter Nelson
The University Scholars Program, now in its 35th year, honors faculty members for superior research and teaching, along with great promise for future achievements. The award provides $15,000 a year for three years.
Dean, UIC College of Engineering
Years at UIC: 32
What are your research interests?
Interdisciplinary problem solving and, more specifically, applied artificial intelligence to solve problems of interest such as transportation, including route planning, computational biology, manufacturing optimization, email spam countermeasures and more recently mobile health applications working on the UIC BiAffect team led by Dr. Alex Leow.
How did you become interested in these topics?
My initial interest in AI developed when I took a course in my first year of graduate studies and I was exposed to writing programs that solve symbolic problems. This course was taught by a psychology professor, which is a good example of the interdisciplinary nature of AI and computer science. My research interests have been driven by opportunity, namely the opportunity to work with very interesting people from different fields and to work on problems that I would like to learn more about and hopefully solve. My interest in applied AI for transportation was fostered by UIC Professor Emeritus David Boyce who was director of the Urban Transportation Center when I joined UIC.
What do you teach?
Currently, most of my time is spent being dean of the College of Engineering. The last class I taught was a communication course for CS majors, more than five years ago. I do usually have a few undergraduates for independent research projects as well as graduate student mentoring.
How do you balance leadership and research?
I give highest priority to my administrative responsibilities since others are dependent on these efforts. My research is now exclusively through collaboration, which puts pressure on me to find some time to deliver what I have committed to doing.
What’s your advice to students who want to focus their future careers on research?
Research is discovery, so pick subdisciplines and problems that interest you. If you want research to be a career, eventually someone is going to have to pay you to do the research, so you also need to think about the level of interest others have in what you are doing. Find strong mentors and advisors — smart, creative people that will have time for you and make your advancement one of their high priorities.