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URCS Measures of Excellence

There are many ways to measure the quality of a University of Rochester Department of Computer Science (URCS). By almost any measure URCS does very well.


The URCS faculty includes 19 tenure-track professors (James Allen, Chris Brown, John Criswell, Chen Ding, Sandhya Dwarkadas, Daniel Gildea, Philip Guo, Lane Hemaspaandra, M. Ehsan HoqueTom Howard, Engin Ipek, Ji Liu, Jiebo Luo, Henry Kautz, Randal Nelson, Len Schubert, Michael Scott, Joel Seiferas, Kai Shen, Daniel Stefankovic, Muthu Venkitasubramaniam), two teaching professors (Ted Pawlicki, George Ferguson)  , and 5 affiliated faculty members, from brain and cognitive science (Robbie Jacobs, Florian Jaeger) and electrical and computer engineering (Wendi HeinzelmanMichael Huang, Guarav Sharma).

Recent Professional Leadership


  • UR Bridging Fellowship: Hemaspaandra
  • UR Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence Undergraduate Teaching: Hemaspaandra
  • UR G. Graydon Curtis and Jane W. Curtis Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Non-tenured Member of the Faculty: Heinzelman
  • UR Goergen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching: Scott
  • UR William H. Riker Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching: Allen
  • Best Paper Award, Fifth ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining, 2012: Kautz & BIgham, with grad student Adam Sadilek
  • Best Student Paper Award, International Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition, 2010: Luo, with student Lixin Duan and collaborators Dong Xu and Ivor Tsang at Nanyang Technological University
  • Best Paper Award, IEEE International Symposium on Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation of Computer and Telecommunication Systems, 2010: Shen, with student Christopher Stewart and colleagues at IBM
  • Best Paper Award, International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems, 2010: Ipek, with colleagues at Microsoft Research
  • Best Paper Award, IEEE International Symposium on Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation of Computer and Telecommunication Systems, 2010: Shen, with student Christopher Stewart and colleagues at IBM
  • Best Paper Award, ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST), 2010:  Bigham, with students Samuel White, Hanjie Ji, and Robin Miller, and colleagues from MIT, University of Washington, University of Maryland, and University of Central Florida
  • Best Student Paper Award, ACM Conference on Accessible Computing (ASSETS), 2009: Bigham, with colleagues from the University of Washington
  • IEEE Micro Top Picks paper, 2010: Ipek, with colleagues at Microsoft Research
  • CACM Research Highlight paper, 2010: Ipek, with colleagues at Microsoft Research
  • Best Paper Award, Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2006: Jacobs, with student Manu Chhabra
  • Best Student Paper Award, ACM Conference on Principles and Practice of Parallel Programming, 2006: Scott student Bill Scherer (republished as a Technical Highlights selection in Communications of the ACM, May 2009)
  • Best Paper Award, International Conference on High Performance Computing, 2005: Scott, with students Bijun He and Bill Scherer
  • Most Popular Poster Presentation Award, ACM Conference on Principles of Distributed Computing, 2005: Scott, with student Bill Scherer
  • Best Paper Award, Usenix Annual Technical Conference, 2004: Scott, with student Thanos Papathanasiou


Graduate students are the lifeblood of a computer science (CS) research program. As of March 2011, the department has 52 PhD students. Of these, 17 (33%) are US citizens. The rest come from a variety of countries around the world, including Bangladesh, China, Colombia, India, Greece, Italy, Iraq, and Iran. Eleven (21%) are women.

URCS students frequently lead the College in GRE scores and University Fellowships. (For the entering classes of 2008–2010, median verbal and quantitative GRE scores were 600 and 800, respectively.) Many students are supported by external corporate and foundation fellowships. All others receive full department stipends, and all receive tuition waivers.

At the undergraduate level, the department graduates about 30 majors a year, many of whom are actively involved in research. Department teams are regular competitors in the international CS Games and the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC); Rochester teams took first place at the CS Games in 2006, 2007, and 2011, and first place in the Northeast North America division of the ICPC in 2009. The undergraduate mobile robot team took first place in the 2002 AAAI mobile robot host competition. Our undergraduates are frequent recipients of major national fellowships and awards. Frank Ferraro received both an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and an NDSEG Fellowship in 2011. Andrew Uzilov received the NSF Fellowship in 2007. David Eisenstat took first place, nationwide, in the 2006 Outstanding Undergraduate Award program of the Computing Research Association. Several other students have placed highly as well—most recently Robin Miller and Frank Ferraro, both of whom were finalists in 2011. There is an active undergraduate council, a student chapter of the ACM, and a Computer Interest Floor in the undergraduate dorms.


Between 1980 and 2013, URCS awarded 190 PhD degrees. URCS graduate alumni have gone on to outstanding careers in academia and industry. Danny Sabbah (PhD 1982) is General Manager for Rational Software at IBM. Rick Rashid (PhD 1980) is Senior Vice President for Research at Microsoft. Avi Tevanian (MS 1984) went on to earn a PhD at CMU, and was Chief Technology Officer of Apple from 1997 to 2006. Corinna Cortes (PhD 1994) is head of Google’s New York City lab. In 2008 she shared the ACM Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award for the development of Support Vector Machines. Peter Dibble (PhD 1990) is a principal architect of the Real Time Specification for Java.

A little over a third of the department’s PhD alumni have gone on to academic careers. At least 34 now hold senior faculty positions, at Boston University (Crovella); Carnegie Mellon University (Schneider); Colgate University (Sanchis [deceased]); Concordia University (Narayanan); Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil (Meira); Florida International University (T. Li); Nassau Community College (Sher); Ohio State University (Parthasarathy); Pacific Lutheran University (Hauser); Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Zaki); Rice University (Cox, Mellor-Crummey); Rutgers University (Kahrs, Bianchini); The National University of Singapore (Jain); The Rochester Institute of Technology (Heliotis, Homan, Vallino); The State University of New York at Albany (Haas); Towson University (Zimand); The University of Alberta, Canada (Jägersand); The University of California at San Diego (Cottrell); The University of Crete (Markatos); The University of Electro-Communications, Tokyo (Tarui); The University of Essex, England (Poesio); The University of Florida (Newman); The University of Leicester (Raman); The University of Maryland (Aloimonos, Perlis); The University of Massachusetts (McCallum); The University of Pittsburgh (Litman); The University of Rochester (Kautz); The University of Washington, Seattle (Rao, also former department for Kautz); The University of Washington, Tacoma (Tenenberg); The University of Texas, El Paso (Fuentes); The University of Utah (Balasubramonian); The University of York, England (Frisch); Washington University in St. Louis (Loui); and the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh (Kyburg). At least 37 more recent grads hold junior academic positions.

In industry and government service, URCS graduate alumni are members of technical staff at many of the world’s leading research labs, including IBM (13), Microsoft (8), Google (8), Bell Labs (2), Intel (3), Xerox (3), Cisco (2), GE (2), NEC (2), Amazon, Ask Jeeves, the Canadian Space Agency, Equinox, Kodak, Lockheed Martin, Los Alamos, The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sarnoff, Siemens, Sprint, Sun, Texas Instruments, VMware, and Yahoo.

While larger departments can boast larger numbers of distinguished alumni, the overall quality of professional placements from URCS is hard to beat.


Field-shaping ideas

Over the years, research at Rochester has changed the face of Computer Science.

The algorithms and complexity theory research group at the University of Rochester has made many field-shaping contributions, both foundational and applied. These are described on the URCS theory contributions web page.

Drawing inspiration from biological vision systems, Chris Brown, former faculty member Dana Ballard, and students developed the active vision paradigm, embedding computer vision in the physical world, applying it to concrete tasks, and leveraging information from moving camera platforms and task-specific knowledge.

The language group at Rochester has made seminal contributions to speech-act plan-based models of dialogue, including the first computational models of intention recognition for language understanding, the first multi-level plan representations for capturing dialogue intentions, and the most influential formalization of the plan recognition process. Rochester’s TRIPS system is probably the most sophisticated fully-functional spoken dialogue system in the world today.

Henry Kautz has made fundamental contributions to the field of efficient commonsense inference, including the planning as satisfiability framework. A 1987 URCS alum, Kautz joined the faculty in 2006 after an illustrious career at Bell Labs, AT&T Labs, and the University of Washington.

In parallel computing, the Rochester Intelligent Gateway project of the late 1970s and early 1980s laid the groundwork for modern network-centric operating systems, and is a direct ancestor of such commercially important systems as OSF Unix and MacOS X. In the mid-1980s, Rochester’s 128-node BBN Butterfly Parallel Processor was the largest shared-memory multiprocessor in the world. Work with the Butterfly influenced a whole generation of parallel operating systems and applications. The work of former faculty member Tom LeBlanc and his students helped shape the field of parallel program debugging and performance analysis. Michael Scott’s work with URCS alum John Mellor-Crummey served to launch the field of scalable synchronization. Their MSqueue lock has been adopted by many commercial libraries and operating systems. Nonblocking data structures developed by Scott and his students are part of the Java standard library. Sandhya Dwarkadas’s work on the Treadmarks and FASTLINK systems played a major role in the discovery of the gene responsible for Parkinson’s disease. Kai Shen's work on cluster management forms the backbone of Internet search site

For further information on current research programs, try the following links:

Cross-disciplinary focus

Much of the department’s research spans traditional boundaries not only among sub-areas of computer science, but between computer science and other allied fields.

  • Henry Kautz brings to the University of Rochester an ambitious initiative in Assisted Cognition, which aims to create computer systems to help people suffering from cognitive disorders, such as the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Fundamental and applied problems in this project range over such diverse topics as probabilistic reasoning, plan recognition, ubiquitous computing, data fusion, user interfaces, and cognitive psychology.
  • The Center for Language Sciences is an interdisciplinary center spanning linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, computer science, engineering, and philosophy. It fosters research both within and between these more traditional disciplines, through a colloquium series, workshops, access to working papers, formal coursework in contributing departments, shared laboratory and computational facilities, and a pre- and post-doctoral training grant from the National Institutes of Health.
  • The Computer Systems and Engineering Group is a joint venture of the departments of computer science and electrical and computer engineering (ECE). As of spring 2011 it has a faculty of ten. Of these, one (Ipek) has a joint position shared between the two departments. Two (Heinzelman and Huang) have primary appointments in ECE and secondary appointments in CS. One (Dwarkadas) has a primary appointment in CS and a secondary appointment in ECE. The group functions smoothly as a cross-department entity: there are jointly supervised students, joint papers, joint meetings, and joint grants. Among other topics, cross-department projects are addressing power-aware system design, adaptive architectures, and wireless computing.
  • During a Bridging Fellowship at the UR Department of Political Science, Lane Hemaspaandra started a research project that now includes researchers at three Rochester-area schools, on the computational complexity of voting and apportionment systems. Among other things, this work has revealed that determining the winner in a famous voting system proposed by Lewis Carroll in 1876 is complete for parallel access to NP.
  • Members of the CS department are among the most active constituents of the University's Center for Research Computing, which provides high-end computational resources and coordinates cross-disciplinary research. Michael Scott serves on the CRC steering committee.
  • The University’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics houses the world’s most powerful x-ray laser, and is the leading site for research in (laser-induced) inertial confinement fusion. Members of the Computer Systems group (Scott, Dwarkadas, and Shen) have collaborated with colleagues at LLE on the high-end computer simulations that drive the understanding of experimental results and the design of future experiments.
  • Members of the CS faculty maintain active research ties with several other UR departments and centers. They routinely serve on PhD committees in other departments, and co-supervise interdisciplinary degrees.

International collaborations

Members of the department maintain active collaborations with colleagues around the world.

  • James Allen has received funding from NSF for a collaborative project with the spoken dialogue group at IIMAS in Mexico City, headed by Luis Pineda. They are working on examining how well the Rochester spoken dialogue system can be used for Spanish.
  • Lane Hemaspaandra is part of the research team on the 7-country EUROCORES/LogICCC grant Computational Foundations of Social Choice, which is supported by the ESF and the NSF. He will visit the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and many European Universities as part of this project. He has also long worked closely with researchers from Japan and Germany, participating in three NSF international collaboration grants (one with Japan and two with Germany) and an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation TransCoop collaboration grant with Germany, and receiving the Humboldt Foundation's Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award. He has worked particularly closely with Hempel, Rothe, Wagner, Watanabe, and Wechsung, and is, jointly with Erdelyi, Faliszewski, Rothe, and Spakowski, studying frequency-of-correctness and election-complexity issues.
  • Lenhart Schubert is working with Alfonso Gerevini of the University of Brescia, Italy, on the DISCOPLAN system for automated discovery of state invariants (“laws”) in planning domains. Such invariants have been used to speed up automated planning by orders of magnitude.
  • The department hosts a steady stream of postdocs and long-term research visitors in a variety of research areas. Recent countries of origin have included Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Russia (as well as the United States), many of them supported by highly competitive international fellowship programs.

Local collaborations

Closer to home, the department works with several groups at nearby schools.

Field-shaping Texts

Book Cover
Michael Scott's Programming Language
Pragmatics (Morgan Kaufmann, Third
edition 2009) addresses the fundamental
principles at work in the most important
contemporary languages. It highlights the
critical relationship between language
design and language implementation,
and devotes special attention to issues
of importance to the expert programmer.
With adoptions at over 200 schools, it
occupies the #2 sales position in the field. 
Book Cover
Lane Hemaspaandra and Leen Torenvliet's
Theory of Semi-Feasible Algorithms
(Springer-Verlag, 2003) presents the first
consolidated survey of the vibrant field of
research known as the theory of semi-
feasible algorithms. It showcases the
richness of, and contrasts between, the
central notions of complexity: running
time, non-uniform complexity, lowness,
and NP-hardness.
Book Cover
Lane Hemaspaandra and Mitsunori Ogihara's The
Complexity Theory Companion (Springer-Verlag,
2002) is an accessible, algorithmically oriented,
research-centered, up-to-date guide to some of
the most interesting techniques of complexity
theory. Its proof methods are algorithmic, and
to highlight the role of algorithmic techniques,
it is organized by technique rather than by topic.
Book Cover
James Allen's Nature Language
Understanding (Addison-Wesley, 2nd
edition, 1995), is the leading text in the
field. It delivers a synthesis of the major
modern techniques and the most current
research in natural language processing.
The approach is unique in its coverage of
semantic interpretation and discourse
alongside the foundational material in
syntactic processing. 
Book Cover
Reasoning About Plans (Morgan Kaufmann,
1991), co-written by James Allen, Henry Kautz,
Josh Tenenberg, and Richard Pelavin, presents
an integrated framework for temporal
reasoning, planning, and plan recognition. 
Book Cover
Dana Ballard and Chris Brown's
Computer Vision (Prentice Hall,1982)
was for many years the defining text
for the field, and remains to this day a
central resource for computer vision

Technology Transfer and Industrial Partnerships

Though the focus at Rochester is on long-term research, we value our many ties to industry, and endeavor to transfer our work into practice whenever appropriate.

  • Working with Virtual Research and Applied Science Laboratories, our virtual reality group was the first to integrate eye tracking into a head-mount display for high-resolution real-time monitoring of user focus in virtual environments.
  • Our virtual reality group has also worked with Sensable Technologies to create the first haptic (force feedback) system able to cover an entire table-top environment with a two-fingered grip touch interface.
  • Chen Ding’s work on Memory Reference Affinity (with student Xipeng Shen, now on faculty at the College of William and Mary) has been implemented in IBM’s C/C++ and Fortran production compilers, leading to dramatic speedups on several of the SPECfp 2000 benchmarks.
  • Mellor-Crummey & Scott queued spin locks have been incorporated into a variety of academic and commercial systems, including Compaq’s True64 Unix, IBM’s K42 multiprocessor OS, and Mercury Computer Corp.’s parallel real-time OS.
  • Michael & Scott’s lock-free queues have been incorporated into the Java 5 standard library.
  • Scherer & Scott’s Exchanger and SynchronousQueue algorithms (co-developed with Doug Lea of SUNY Oswego) have been adopted for Java 6.
  • Department research has resulted in a variety of patents and pending applications, including music feature extraction, the Cashmere-2L coherence protocol, scalable queue locks with timeout, and several aspects of Complexity-Adaptive Processing.
  • Department research has been supported in recent years by financial or equipment donations from Boeing, Compaq, IBM, Intel, Kodak, Mercury, Microsoft, and Sun.

External recognition

  • The National Research Council's  Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs (revised April 2011) ranked our department in the range 11th to 34th nationally according to one weighting of metrics (r-rankings), and in the range 9th to 48th according to the other weighting (s-rankings).
  • Rochester had the rare distinction of receiving continuous funding from the National Science Foundation Research Infrastructure program from 1984 to 2005. Also known by the earlier names CER (Coordinated Experimental Research) and IIP (Institutional Infrastructure Program), RI grants fund the acquisition of unique, large-scale hardware resources for interdisciplinary work. At Rochester these grants recognized ground-breaking collaboration among researchers in Computer Systems, Spatial AI, Symbolic AI, and Theory.
  • With an annual budget of over $5 million, and research expenditures around $3.5M, URCS external funding averages around $200K/faculty member per year. While larger departments often have larger total budgets, per capita funding at Rochester is very strong.


URCS Research facilities are by any measure outstanding (see separate page). Significant hardware donations in recent years have come from IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Sun. Current department resources include a 32-processor IBM pSeries 690 (“Regatta”) machine, 8- and 16-processor SunFire multiprocessors, 32- and 128-core Sun Niagara machines. The department also enjoys easy access to a 672-core Linux cluster and a 1024-core IBM BlueGene/P machine at the University's Center for Research Computing.

The academic program

URCS was founded as a PhD-only department in 1974. The first degrees were awarded in 1980. The department typically admits 10–12 PhD students each fall, and graduates about 7 every year. Time to completion of the PhD is just over five years on average. The department also offers a “3-2” combined BS/MS program, and a small professional master’s program.

While the department has taught undergraduates from the outset (largely through the applied mathematics: computer science program in the math department), it did not administer its own BS and BA programs until 1995, with the first degrees awarded in the spring of 1996. In 2004 the department received the University’s Goergen award for curricular achievement.

As noted above, the National Research Council ranked URCS 14th in the nation in the “effectiveness of the graduate program”. James Allen has received the University’s Curtis award for graduate teaching. Michael Scott has received the University’s Goergen award for undergraduate teaching. Wendi Heinzelman has received the University’s Curtis award for teaching by a non-tenured member of the faculty.

The value of being small

Most other top-ranked departments are three to four times our size. Smallness has an impact, of course, on the total number of students and publications, the total size of the budget, the total number of alumni, etc., but it does not have an impact on the things that really matter: the output of the department per person, and the quality of the research, the people, and the programs.

While it is difficult for a small department to compete with the sheer volume and variety of work at larger schools, there are significant advantages to being small. Many of these advantages impact quality of life, making URCS a great place to work or to get a degree. Many, however, impact research quality as well, inspiring us to do research that we probably wouldn’t do at a larger school.

  • Cross-disciplinary focus — As noted above, the department places a heavy emphasis on interdisciplinary work. Small size facilitates this emphasis: groups naturally seek each other out to help build critical mass. At the University level, administrative policies make it easy to share funding and appointments across departments and schools. More locally, the department deliberately encourages “cross fertilization” by mixing student office space by area: the typical room houses students with three different research advisors, working in different areas of AI, HCI, systems, and/or theory.
  • Personal attention — With about three to four PhD students per faculty member, on average, doctoral candidates receive a great deal of personal attention. Most students become active in research during their first year of graduate study. Beyond that first year, most learning occurs one-on-one or in small groups at the whiteboard, rather than in a classroom setting.
  • Communal resource model — The department pools financial resources to the maximum extent consistent with granting agency guidelines. Every PhD student is guaranteed support throughout the course of graduate studies, regardless of choice of advisor or research topic. A department-wide committee coordinates all major equipment purchases, to maximize the potential to meet multiple research needs. Machines are then uniformly available to all faculty, grad students, visitors, and postdocs. All Unix machines run a common password file, and all file systems are universally cross-mounted, so one can log on anywhere and feel at home.
  • Collaborative decision making — Because the entire faculty will fit around one table, decisions can be made almost entirely by consensus. Graduate student representatives serve on all department committees, and play a major role in graduate admissions, facilities, and curricular development.
  • Collegial atmosphere — Because everyone in the department knows everyone else, the social and professional atmosphere is unusually warm and collegial. There are weekly parties, and department teams in various intramural sports leagues.

The city and quality of life

Recently ranked as one of the Northeast’s 10 “Best Places to Live in America” by Money magazine, Rochester has also been listed as one of the “Most Livable Cities” in America by Partners for Livable Communities, a rating based on Rochester’s technology-focused economy, recreational opportunities, and historic neighborhoods. There is a thriving arts and entertainment scene, fueled in part by the UR’s own Eastman School of Music (the number one music school in the country). There is a wide variety of affordable housing within easy distance of campus. The surrounding countryside is gorgeous. There are four real seasons, each with its distinctive charm, and contrary to rumors you may have heard, winter is not significantly longer than the other three :-).

For more information on the Greater Rochester Area, check out the pages maintained by the UR Public Relations Department and the UR Admissions Office.

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