Meet College of Sciences Alumna Blair D. Sullivan, Associate Professor of Computer Science

Blair Dowling graduated in 2003 with a double major in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. She continued her mathematics education at Princeton University, receiving an M.A. in 2005 and a Ph.D. in 2008.

Now Blair D. Sullivan, she is a faculty member at North Carolina State University (NC State) and leads the Theory in Practice research group, which addresses fundamental questions in data-driven science. 

Before attending Georgia Tech, she was homeschooled in Georgia. She currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

What attracted you to Georgia Tech? What is the most important thing you learned at Tech?

Its reputation for producing high-quality graduates in science and engineering, the sense that I would fit in the student body, and cost. The President’s Scholar Program played a large role in my decision.

I learned that it’s important to know your own priorities; otherwise, other people will impose theirs upon you.

What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?

Many of my great memories involve flying discs:  the cold and muddy practice with the women’s club team in the Burger Bowl, the camaraderie of playing co-ed with the Westminster Christian Fellowship’s intramural team, and the simple pleasure of tossing a frisbee in the Kessler Campanile fountain.

How did you get to your current position?

After graduating from Tech, a Ph.D. was the next step in my vision of becoming a mathematician.  Thinking I wanted to work in number theory, I enrolled in the mathematics program at Princeton University. I quickly discovered that I preferred combinatorics and completed my Ph.D. working on problems in graph theory.

During my Ph.D., I interned at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) as a condition of my Department of Homeland Security graduate fellowship, as well as with the Theory Group at Microsoft Research. Both experiences reinforced what I realized during my senior year at Tech working with Dana Randall—that I really want to work on problems that not only have elegant mathematical solutions, but also tangible connections to real-world challenges.

After my Ph.D., I took a position at ORNL’s Complex Systems Group, focused on the challenges of analyzing graphs using high-performance computing and refining my interest to focus on graph algorithms.

In 2013, I joined the NC State Department of Computer Science as an assistant professor. I returned to academia because of a desire for longer-term mentoring relationships with students and more research freedom. I was promoted to associate professor in 2016.

Tech’s biggest impact has been the faculty who became my mentors. Some of them continue to provide support and advice. I specifically acknowledge and thank Dana Randall, in the School of Computer Science, and Peter Mucha, then in the School of Mathematics and now at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

What do you like most about your current job? The least?

One of my favorite things is the opportunity to engage with scientists in a wide variety of application domains to learn about the challenges they’re facing and help identify or develop tools from mathematics and theoretical computer science to address them. In the past six months alone, we’ve collaborated on quantum computing with physicists from ORNL, drug repurposing with computational genetics experts from the University of Pennsylvania, and metagenomic sequence analysis with data-intensive biologists at the University of California, Davis.

One of the things that frustrates me most is not unique to my job as a faculty member, but instead affects my entire research community: hostile peer reviews. Although the peer-review process has its own set of challenges that I don’t want to get into, my complaint lies with the content of many reviews of publications submitted to theoretical computer science conferences. It would be generous to call much of the feedback mean-spirited, and the tone and commentary are frequently disparaging and/or insulting. For example, I once got a review saying “this work could have been done by a graduate student.” This type of attitude and behavior makes the field feel unwelcoming

What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?

My passion for putting “Theory in Practice” hasn’t always meshed well with traditional disciplinary boundaries and expectations. Funding and publication venues can be hard to find for the type of interdisciplinary work I find most rewarding. Because my accomplishments don’t lie within any single community, it can be harder to attain the visibility and recognition necessary for career advancement. 

What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?

Being named a Moore Investigator in Data-Driven Discovery in 2014, although tenure is a very close second. The Moore award affirmed that leaders in the field believe my research program has promise and potential and that I have what it takes to tackle these problems.

The grant has enabled me to take risks and work on problems and activities that I felt were most important or exciting, instead of constantly worrying about funding. The connections I have made thanks to the community formed in and around the Data-Driven Discovery Initiative have been invaluable.

If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?

There’s not another job that I’d rather be doing. While often stressful, being a faculty member at a research university offers me an unmatched opportunity to engage in all the activities I find enjoyable and rewarding—mentoring, tackling interesting mathematical problems, teaching, collaborating with scientists in other fields, traveling, etc.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students at Georgia Tech? 

Take the time to enjoy your experience at Georgia Tech. Explore your passions. Build a network of friends, acquaintances, and mentors whom you can rely on for years to come.

What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?

I like long-distance hiking and running. I miss the proximity of East Tennessee to the Smoky Mountains, where I spent many great days on the trail.

Since coming to Raleigh, I spend more time running. My son Tristan, born in August 2016, is the proud owner of a “13.1 in utero” onesie, which he and I earned back in March. I’m hoping to set a half-marathon personal record next spring.

If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?

Despite, or perhaps because of, his reputation for preferring to discuss his work at the dinner table, I’d invite Paul Erdős, the Hungarian mathematician. Thanks to his prolific collaborations, broad interests, and nomadic lifestyle, he could provide an unparalleled perspective on the mathematics—and mathematicians—of the 20th century.

My senior colleagues speak fondly of their time with Erdős. In light of his reputation as a difficult houseguest, however, I’d opt for a nice dinner out. Given the stories about him, I imagine that he would have fascinating tales of his experiences around almost any imaginable topic. Of course I’d be sure that over dessert we solved an open problem—so I could claim the very last Erdős number of 1.

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