Anastassia Ailamaki
Assistant Professor
Computer Science Department


Starting with background information, where are you originally from?
My father is from Crete (an island in south Greece) and I lived there for most of my life. I was born in Nicosia – capital of Cyprus.


Where did you attend High-School? What about bachelors and Masters/PHD?
I went to school in Egion, Greece. For college, I attended Computer Engineering at the University of Patra. I did my masters in databases at Chania, my hometown in Crete.

I got my PHD from Wisconsin-Madison. The thesis was on database systems and their interaction with the underlying hardware.


How did you get interested in Computer Engineering/Computer Science?
After high school, I had to decide what to study, rank different fields on par with what I had learnt in school and turn in my prioritized list for application purposes. Engineering schools in Europe involve five years of studies, are really hard to get into and have no majors/minors. You must decide from the beginning what you want to do. If you want to switch, you must wait for a year and compete again with the next bunch of prospective students.

Patra was basically an engineering school that was new and really very hard to get into. At that time, I did not even know what a computer was – I applied just because it was a challenge to get in. I actually wanted to become a pilot but couldn’t because there were only military schools in Greece and these only took men, or a chemical engineer. But,then I heard that there is this new computer engineering school that is really hard to get into and that accepts only very few people. So I put that as #1 on my list and when I got in I had to go to my #1. This is how I got into Computer Engineering.

I immediately liked the engineering behind Computer Science. While doing my masters at Crete, I was teaching two classes at the newly formed computer engineering school. I did the underground building and engineering for a network needed by the newly built university campus of the technical university of Crete. I had done networks as part of my undergraduate diploma thesis, so it worked really well. It was interesting and I had very nice times. I also got a chance to work in a lot of European union funded projects that involved traveling all over Europe for technical meetings with teams, companies and universities. That was a lot of fun.


What made you come to USA for Computer Science?
After a while (about four years), the European Union project that I was working on and also coordinating at the same time, ended. Then I wanted to do something else. Something that would help me learn at a faster rate. My life in Crete was amazing, but I was missing learning. So I thought of getting a job somewhere else in Europe. But nothing was to my expectations. A friend then suggested going to USA for a PHD. Initially I thought that it would be too far, but realized that it was going to be a new experience. It will be really cool going there because I will be learning a lot as a student. I was thinking that if I did not like it, I could always go back to Greece because the university would still happily hire me back.

I was applying really and could only apply to Rochester, NY, where I was admitted. Rochester was great, but I was doing computer architecture there while I really wanted to do databases. SoI reapplied and moved to Wisconsin in May 1996.

I graduated with a PhD from Wisconsin doing something I really-really liked: Interdisciplinary research on database systems behavior, workload characterization, and optimizing the interaction between database and computer microarchitecture.

I believe that every place I went gave me something unique and then everything came together in my PhD. I learned networks at Patra, databases in Crete and Wisconsin, computer architecture in Rochester and Wisconsin, and then the Ph.D. taught me how to put everything together and essentially learn how to learn more.


What about women peers and faculty? Being a faculty member yourself, have you had previous interactions with other female faculty members in your career?
As an undergraduate, I never had a lot of women peers. In Patra there were 9 women in a class of 140. In Crete, in the technical university (for masters), there were no women faculty. In Rochester, there were a couple of female faculty. There are a few more in but definitely a minority.


What are your views on being a Faculty as a female?
It is a big commitment to become faculty. I wanted a family and I felt I may or may not be able to do it but I could give I a shot., My PhD co-advisor (Mark Hill) told me, "if you want to try academia, go for it, and if you don't make it, just go make a difference somewhere else in an industrial site or in another country. You'll still be happy." And so I tried and I now know that I can't possibly be doing anything else. It's a great job, it's very fulfilling and sometimes it doesn't even feel like a job. It's very rewarding because I get to talk and work and be with people like you guys, with students who are resourceful and inspirational. I want to make a change for the better and I feel that it will happen through you, the students. That is what we all are trying here. So it is amazing and I am happy I made this work. A lot of people ask me about juggling family and work. I had my first child not when it was directed by my studies and my work but when I found the right guy – I like to keep my personal life separate from my professional life. When I became pregnant, I was really stressed and felt that I will be making a professional dent in my career. So I worked very hard and the result was that the one semester when I did not teach and minimized meetings became unnoticeable. I had Niki in 2003 and 2003 and 2004 have been my most profitable years in terms of professional growth. Of course, systems work requires a long start!

I think that the secret to happiness is the right prioritization: Put the big stones in the jar first (i.e., give time to what matters to you most) and then the smaller stones and then the pebbles and then the sand and then there’s always space left to pour some water and fill the jar up.


How did you decide to come to Carnegie Mellon?
Babak and I interviewed together in 2000. It was a good market and we had offers from almost everywhere we interviewed. We realized that CMU was the place because we both felt at home here. I never thought that I would come and live in Pittsburgh. Everyone had told me horrible things about this place but now that I live here, I don’t think they are true. You come here and then you experience CMU and then there is simply no comparison. For us CMU is not only a top notch place in terms of research, but also a top notch place in terms of people and environment and collegial feeling and above all it is very collaborative.


How would you compare the level of Computer Science in Greece with the level in the US?
I don’t think that there such a thing as a “comparison of levels.” Computer Science is a wonderfully diverse field that can be exercised in so many diverse and blossoming ways that you just have to go where you feel you will be able to grow in the way you want to. In Greece there is a strong focus on education and the research is very tied to applications (EU funding influences research directions). Here the funding is more diverse and there is a lot of freedom on what kind of research one will do.


What are your current roles and responsibilities as an Assistant Professor and as the co-founder of the CMU databases group?
I find that I do mostly four things (Teaching and Advising, Research and Meetings, Research Grants and Community Work.) First is to teach or advise which to me is an amazing and endless joy - especially when I teach undergraduates - because it's so rewarding. I have great graduate students and love advising them. It's a very interesting journey from the beginning when they start to the time they become independent professionals and I'm going to be happy to see some of my students graduate but sad to see them leave at the end of next year.

I do research with my students, and as a systems person I like to be hands-on.. Unfortunately my time does not allow sitting alone and staring at a blank sheet of paper for a while and then scribbling stuff and developing systems and trying experiments. But I am enjoying myself – I believe in the high impact of collaborative research, so I do research with a lot of interesting people.I write grants to pay for my students and for machines

I also like doing community duty in the department and in my research community, e.g organizing the immigration course, hiring committees, hosting candidates, . and reviewing tons and tons of papers for tons and tons of top level conferences, and organizing parts of conferences. These are really useful experiences.


What do you think about the CS curriculum at Carnegie Mellon?
I think it works really well. People enjoy courses that are both focused and that have large breadth and at CMU there are a broad range of topics they can take. There are interdisciplinary courses especially at the graduate level. I like this and have seen it work both by teaching people the connection between databases and other fields and also by focusing on how we can make a difference by letting the results of our science out. CMU is one of the pioneers in interdisciplinary education. I really enjoy seeing interdisciplinary education creep into our curriculum and getting into courses (either in the form of special lectures or as an invited speaker).


How do you like teaching graduate courses and how was your experience teaching the first undergraduate databases class in spring 2003?
Teaching 15-415 for the first time was not too hard because this class was originally designed by Christos Faloutsos, a very special person, an amazing scientist. He gave me his blessing to change everything I wanted in the course and play -- that’s what it’s all about, we play and gain experiences. I introduced a couple of different projects, changed the textbook . Then I started teaching and when you teach something you love, you are happy. So I was very happy.


Will you continue teaching undergraduate classes? What other courses do you teach?
For the moment, I only teach 15-415 at the undergraduate level. At graduate level, I teach a course I introduced: 15-721 (entry level graduate course). This course brings people up to date with the latest and greatest in systems and also starts from a very early history of how systems evolved. It is a great database course about data management systems , programs, and applications. I also teach a graduate level seminar course. This is shaped into a modular course that covers very hot areas in recent database conferences (e.g. peer-to-peer databases, databases and comp architecture, sensor databases).


What roles and attributes do you feel women bring to the SCS community?
Engineering thinking. I really think women are amazing engineers. They are full of fundamentally innovative ideas and are very resourceful when it comes to solving a hard problem. Most of the times when I have been lucky to work with a woman, I have been faced with an excellent source of ideas, perseverance and commitment. I don’t want to say that it’s better or worse than what it was before women actually became a significant presence in CS. However, they have definitely complemented the field in a very unique way and I really think that computer science is going to go much further if there are more women involved and the more of these women go to grad school and get educated, the more of a difference they can make. I, for one, am not the same person I was before I did my PhD. Learning at the higher and higher level and understanding how to learn and disseminate knowledge changes you forever.


What is your favorite zone/place in Pittsburgh?
The Allegany county airport where I learned to fly. I wanted to fly since I was 10 and I got to do it in Pittsburgh. I really like flying above the Cathedral of Learning and overlooking beautiful downtown Pittsburgh by night. So that would be my favorite place – right up there.

I like other places in Pittsburgh: the south side used book shops where I can go at 11 pm and find editions of books that I have only heard of in Europe. I also like the dance clubs where one can dance to 80s music.


What is the next big thing in Computer Science?
Expanding the way we think about computing. Computing in very different ways - without pushing any buttons or having the equipment that we are used to thinking about when we think about the word “computer.” In movies we see signs that people have started to think about what it would mean to compute everywhere - when you need it and in the way you need it. We will be able to break out of these physical restrictions and create easy ways for people to compute, and then we will be able to bring people in the world closer to each other and extend Computer Science in the real world in a very practical manner. For example, enable CS to contribute in medicine in a practical way, not just for the few with networked access to computer archives but for everybody. Imagine a doctor at P-score to be able to very quickly find out whether what they see has happened or has been seen before. It will take some pretty crazy and exciting ideas to do that.

What inspires you the most?

My inspiration comes from the students. It emerges through their faces as they understand and explore and come up with ways to interpret experimental results and ask research questions on them. I remember the faces of students in my last class today where I was teaching ARIES -- a very hard to digest recovery system that even I have to read every time before I teach the class. I saw the faces of students as they understood this difficult piece of software art and that motivates me more than anything. I see my graduate students' faces when they publish their first paper after having worked like crazy on their ideas – when they go to a conference and get everybody’s compliments. This is my reward, this is what I live for.