Alum Dimitris Papailiopoulos Joins UW-Madison Faculty

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

WNCG Alumnus, Dimitris Papailiopoulos, recently accepted a position as an Assistant Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), where he will also serve as a faculty affiliate at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.

Prof. Papailiopoulos received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the Technical University of Crete and his PhD from WNCG, where he was advised by Prof. Alex Dimakis. Before moving to Madison, Prof. Papailiopoulos spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley, where he was a member of the AMPLab.

His research lies at the intersection of machine learning, coding theory and distributed systems.

Prof. Papailiopoulos sat down with WNCG to share his recent success, offer career advice to current students and reminisce about his time at WNCG.

Q: How did you originally connect with the opportunity in Madison?

A: My mentors and a professor from the University of Wisconsin informed me about the openings at Madison during my faculty applications last year. I interviewed in late February, got the offer in March, and joined the faculty this August.

Q: Why choose UW-Madison over a different school?

A: UW-Madison is a great intellectual home. The research here is top notch, the students are great and my colleagues are fantastic. UW-Madison has one of the best and fastest growing groups in my general area of research and offers an exciting and healthy environment in which to grow academically.

What is unique about UW Madison is its deep-rooted culture for cross disciplinary research. There are plenty of opportunities for collaboration across other departments, such as Computer Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics.

The other deciding factor for me is the quality of life and charm of the city. Madison is a hidden gem in the US. People walk and bike everywhere, there are bike paths all around the city, and everyone is involved in recreational activities during both the summer and heavy winter - including wind surfing, swimming, sailing, cross country skiing and more. Also, there are cultural activities happening all the time. Most importantly, Madison is home to the biggest farmers market in the US. If you cook everyday like me, there are no words to describe how awesome that is!

Q: What led you to choose an academic career path instead of a corporate or industry one?

A: There’s a widely accepted reason why people stay on the academic path. It’s because of the freedom it offers. In academia, you can focus on whatever problem you like, you can allocate as much time on work as you prefer, and you can choose your own work schedule.

However, that freedom and flexibility does not come for free. If you are not motivated or disciplined enough, this whole trip might not lead anywhere. But if you play the game right - if you are self-motivated, disciplined and have good ideas and bright people around you, it can be the best job, and your work can have real impact on the world.

Q: What do you look forward to most about being a faculty member? What do you foresee being the biggest challenge?

A: I’m excited to start my own research group, advise new students, and to keep creating impactful research. I’m working harder than ever and am really enjoying this new role.

The biggest challenge is that being a faculty member comes with a completely new set of requirements. It will take some adjustment before I’m comfortable with all I have to do, which includes writing grants, attracting top students, making sure everything abides to a tenure clock, and so on. But I also think it's going to be fun!

Q: What type of research will you be undertaking at UW? How will this research build upon the work you started at WNCG and UC Berkeley?

A: My research is focused on problems that are at the intersection of Machine Learning, Coding Theory and Computer Systems. In simple words, I am trying to make computers learn concepts faster and better. The tools of my trade are algorithms, clusters of computers and math.

This thread of my research grew substantially during my postdoctoral position at Berkeley. However, the general theme was developed during my last two years at UT Austin, under the guidance of my advisor, Prof. Alex Dimakis.

I was fortunate enough to work on an eclectic set of problems with Prof. Dimakis: from data storage and communication problems, to data analytics, and the theory and practice surrounding them. This experience allowed me to develop a wide set of technical tools that are not traditionally used together, and I believe was the main reason behind the success of my research efforts. I now apply the different concepts I’ve learned to the exciting and fast-evolving field of large scale machine learning. I am currently looking to recruit and advise new graduate students to assist with this research.

Q: How did your time at WNCG help prepare you for this new role?

A: My advisor, Prof. Alex Dimakis, has been one of the most supportive and guiding figures in my academic life. I am indebted to him for his guidance and the academic freedom he gave me. Prof. Dimakis has had a tremendous intellectual influence on me, and I can only wish that I inherited some of his crisp academic vision and a finer taste for problems. He was key in making this ride rich and enjoyable. I can only hope to be at least a small fraction as good of an advisor for my future academic children as he was for me.

Q: What advice from your life and career can you give to current students with similar career aspirations?

A: Here’s the bitter truth: although it can be extremely rewarding and fun, academia is tough, demanding and can crush your feelings. Being smart is not enough. Everyone on this path is smart in one way or another.

Being successful in academia requires an extended set of skills. It’s not enough to be good at math or programming. You also need to be a good communicator of ideas, be able to collaborate and share ideas with other researchers, and, perhaps most importantly, you need to have a good taste for problems. Sure, you can develop a novel solution to an extremely challenging math problem your advisor gave you, but that alone is not enough to make you the star of the night. You really have to be well rounded to make it here.

Also, you need to love this game. You have to be excited about the problem you’re working on, and you have to be happy with your advisor. There are so many parameters for a successful PhD path, but you have the power to change things and to make them right for you. Don’t wait until your fourth year before you decide the problem you’ve worked on is not the right one, or that your advisor is not a great fit for you.

Above all, don't forget you have a real life out there, and that you are a social being with social needs. Make friends and cherish the ones you already have. Stay close to your family and the ones you love. Get involved in activities and do things completely unrelated to research. Try to have a work-life balance. This is not a term some obscure mid-century European philosopher came up with. It's really something that can make you happy, and can keep you sane and at peace with your choices. Also, Austin is so much fun. Go out there and enjoy the food-trucks, the music and the long summers.