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Computer Whiz and Then Some

From Virginia Engineering
April 1, 1996

Gabriel Robins, professor of computer science, loves puzzles. His mind grasps hold and won't quit. He expects the same from his students, and he gets it.

L ike a supercomputer that operates night and day, Gabriel Robins just keeps on humming. "Sleep is so overrated," he shrugs. It's his slogan, stretched above his name on the striking Internet home page headlined Gabriel Robins, Assistant Professor of Computer Science.

"I've trained myself over the years to do with less sleep and to organize my life to allow time for the things that are important to me. I usually work very late into the night, and I picked a place to live that's within easy walking distance of school."

Yet Robins is no sober-faced workhorse. One of his favorite T-shirts is emblazoned with the words, "Have you hugged your nerd today?" A collection of puzzles nestles on his bookshelf, among the textbooks and reference volumes. It's the most visible of his hobbies, which also raising tropical fish.

Robins "Work brings out the best in me"
Organization and energy have allowed Robins to enjoy what he is doing and meanwhile just three years beyond his doctorate post a string of Packard Fellowship, one of the nation's most prestigious grants to young science and engineering faculty; a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award; a Lilly Foundation University Teaching Fellowship; and an All University Outstanding Teacher Award, among other honors.

Equally prideworthy is his membership in the Defense Science Study Group (DSSG), an advisory board to the U.S. Department of Defense. As a member of the board, Robins has consulted with Secretary of Defense William Perry, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili, and other high-ranking military officials. This assignment has also taken him into the world of action: aboard a nuclear missile submarine, visiting the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, refueling a B-1 bomber in mid-air, and reviewing flight operations from the bridge of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Eisenhower.

"I don't recommend my schedule to everyone and I certainly don't advocate that people work themselves to death," he says. "We all should do the things that we enjoy doing, the things that bring out the best in us. What I do is perfect for me."

As close as the nearest computer
scale integrated (VLSI) circuits and the use of algorithms in the computer-aided design of cutting-edge VLSI technologies, such as multi-chip modules and field-programmable gate arrays.

Robins gets excited when he talks about the challenges of science and technology, and his enthusiasm is contagious among students and colleagues alike. Although he credits the quality of SEAS students for his classroom success, his awards tell another story. "I see teaching and research as synergistic," he says. "Sometimes a student asks a question that we don't have an answer for, an open-ended inquiry. We investigate together."

His students are his partners. When Robins goes out of town for meetings and conferences, his students communicate by e-mail. "I pledge to my students that a reply from me is never more than a few hours away, no matter where I am in the world," he says with a grin. "They never have an excuse."

Scientific theory fascinates him, but practical application is Robins's favorite game. "My work is optimization," he says. "I use algorithmic techniques to lay out very large integrated circuits. It's a nice meld of theory and practice. When I can find a solution to a challenging open problem, and then assist industry in applying our results to actual products, that's very gratifying."

The puzzles on his bookshelf combine theory and practice, too: elegant structures designed to challenge the player. "Having these puzzles around keeps me sharp," he says. "I use them in class projects. My students write computer programs to solve them, and then we test their solutions together."

Through computers into all realms
As an avid Isaac Asimov fan in childhood, Robins saw computing as a gateway to amazing advances. "Being in computer science, I can step into other fields of science for a few weeks or months at a time," he says. "For example, I'm collaborating with biochemists on problems related to the human genome project, mapping out billions of DNA nucleotides, which requires trillions of computations. I help the biochemists, and they teach me some biology."

Advising the Defense Department, Robins visits another field of study. "By applying pattern recognition techniques to infrared images, we're developing better ways to detect land mines," he explains. "There are a hundred million buried around the world, and the number is steadily growing. Unless these mines are detected and removed they'll continue to kill thousands of civilians each year."

Colleagues make all the difference
With his Ph.D. in computer science from UCLA, Robins's credentials already fellowships.

"I've tried to pull out all the stops in my professional development," he says. "Before grants were available, I used my own money for books, travel, software, equipment. But more importantly, my department has been very supportive. Our chair, Jim Ortega, and senior faculty are visionary. They are generous in helping junior faculty attend conferences, buy equipment, and hire graduate research assistants. We're grateful, and we respond by producing quality work. Young faculty are in their formative years, and short-changing them on professional support is like depriving a child of the proper dietary nutrients."

Yet Robins also thinks American scientists should count their blessings. "Last year I corresponded with Alexander Zelikovsky, a top-notch researcher from Moldovia, a republic of the former Soviet Union," he says. "I found out that Zelikovsky's institute had a single work station that was shared by its entire faculty. Moreover, faculty members were forced to pay in order to a receive e-mail and they earned less than $200 a month." Robins soon helped Zilikovsky improve his lot. He arranged for his Moldovian colleague to join SEAS as a postdoctoral fellow in computer science, and now they work together. How would Gabriel Robins sum up his view of a good life's work? He answers by quoting not a scholar but a warrior, General George S. Patton: "If a man does his best, what else is there?"


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