Interview with Christopher Olston

Christopher Olston

Christopher Olston
Assistant Professor
Age: 25
Degrees: M.S. & PhD. From Stanford, B.S from UC Berkeley
Goal: I’d like to somehow positively influence the world—in whatever large or small way—because I think that’s a good way to associate meaning with your life


Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Sure, I grew up in the Bay Area—the San Francisco Bay Area (guess I have to say that here). This is my first time living outside of California, so I’m kind of a California person (whatever you associate with that). I’m also a work-hard, play-hard kind of person. I work a lot, but then when I’m not working I try to do a lot of fun stuff—pack it all in. I’m really into rollerblading (which I guess is a stereotypical “California” thing), and rock-climbing—it’s probably my favorite activity because its very tactile and physical—it contrasts very much with what computer science is all about (a lot of abstract thinking).

Here’s a burning question—why Carnegie Mellon? What was the bottom line in your final decision to come here?

Actually, for me Carnegie Mellon was a pretty obvious choice—of course the quality of the department is very high, and there are people here that I can work with in a lot of different areas. My research interest is primarily in databases, but it does overlap with other areas, like human-computer interaction and information retrieval, and there are excellent people in both of those fields here—as well as top people doing theory, AI, and so on. Also, Carnegie Mellon’s culture of collaboration is really terrific.

The second thing is the quality of the students. Research is really carried out by the students, of course, so it’s great to have top-notch students like the ones at Carnegie Mellon.

As far as the location, I have to admit I was at first skeptical about Pittsburgh being a nice place to live, but now I am completely convinced that it’s a great place to live. I like it here a lot actually, and so far my experience has been that the people here are very friendly—in the department and also in Pittsburgh in general. In some ways the people seem to be more friendly and outgoing than in California. In California people tend to be caught up in doing their own thing and being very self sufficient. In Pittsburgh there seems to be more of a sense of community among the population, which is nice.

What do you like most about Carnegie Mellon?

I’d say the spirit of collaboration. The culture is such that people tend to arrange meetings involving several faculty members who all contribute their ideas without being too protective of their “turf,” so to speak. The culture of collaboration here contributes to a pleasant, relaxed environment to work in, and it also creates the opportunity for inter-area research.

What’s your favorite aspect about Computer Science?

I like the fact that it’s a really broad field, which is apparent if you think about methodology. It covers everything from complexity theory to how to build chips—which are pretty different—one is closer to math and the other is engineering. As an undergraduate I very much enjoyed studying a wide spectrum of topics.

Have you always wanted to teach?

No. I didn’t really think about it until I was in graduate school. I always wanted to do research—even though I didn’t know it was called research! So even when I was in high school (and probably before that even), I knew I wanted to create new ideas and build new things. As far as teaching, I think my interest in that really developed in college and grad school. My enthusiasm for teaching stems from a combination of being excited about ideas and enjoying communicating them to other people.

Do you teach any classes here as yet?

Yes, I’m teaching a seminar this semester. It’s a graduate seminar on data streams. We have about eight people taking the class. We read some papers, the students present them, and we have some informal discussion.

In the spring I’ll be teaching the undergraduate level Database course—which is a really fun class to teach. I enjoy teaching graduate level seminars and undergraduate courses for different reasons—in graduate seminars you get to explore the cutting edge of research in some area, and at CMU you get to work with really good students while doing it. As far as undergraduate classes, for the database class, I get to teach students the subject that was for me, as an undergraduate, very exciting. So I try to pass on the excitement because I think it’s a really great field.

What’s a day in your life like?

A weekday or a weekend? They’re very different! [Laughs]

Both—let’s talk about both—

Okay, a weekday, I wake up, I walk to school (I like living close to school). I usually spend the morning preparing for classes or giving classes. The afternoon is some combination of meeting with students, meeting with colleagues, and writing grant proposals—it turns out you need to get money to do research! Then, sometime around six o’clock, I usually try to leave work and then I’ll either go to the gym and then hang out with some friends at a cafe, or go rollerblading.

A typical weekend for me involves either rollerblading or skiing, depending on the season. Basically I enjoy activities where I’m zooming around on my legs at high speeds. For long weekends, I have a great time making road trips to the mountains, out into the desert, up the coast, etc. Well that was in California. I haven’t figured out good places for road trips around here yet, besides DC, but I will.

Does it feel odd, or cool, or just comfortable, to be so much younger than your co-workers and yet only a few years older than the students you teach?

Well I’m definitely conscious of it. I think other people probably are too! I’m kind of in this weird bind because in some ways I feel like I have something to prove because other people may think, ‘oh, who is this guy—he’s pretty young—is he really a professor?’ Sometimes I feel I should act more like a professor, and do things the way a professor would do them. On the other hand I don’t really want to prematurely throw away my youth! So I try to be myself.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Here. [Smiles]

From you personal webpage, it seems clear that you have an attraction towards art & writing. Is it a hobby, just a love, or something you seriously pursue?

It’s a hobby…so it turns out that being an academic you spend a lot of your time writing—doing very structured writing. And a lot of that experience actually transfers into other types of writing—so I actually find that my writing on non-technical topics gets better, and so I try to cultivate that.
I also try to do a lot of unstructured writing like poetry—I find that writing is the best way I can express myself.

As far as visual art goes, I don’t know much about it, but I try to appreciate it! I love being in museums surrounded by art. I think if you spend a lot of time trying to appreciate art (and I don’t think I spend as much time doing that as I’d like to), you might come to then see the whole world as art—buildings, streets, trees … people—that would be a pretty nice way to live!

Complete this sentence: I hate mayonnaise because…

There’s no rational reason! It’s just a personal taste…or distaste rather!

Are you married and do you have any kids?

No and no.

What’s your favorite color?

Blue.

What’s your favorite place in the world?

Probably my grandmother’s house in France—it’s this little village on the Atlantic coast of France. Mostly because I have a lot of memories of it from when I was a kid, and also because it’s pretty much as far isolated from academia and computer science as I can get. I love academia and computer science, but I think it’s healthy and good to get away every once in a while.

That’s probably the only place in the world I can go where I’m not even tempted to think about work.

Do you speak French?

Yes—my mom’s French—so yes.

What’s your favorite food?

[Laughs] If you had asked me this five years ago I would have said burritos—but I don’t know—maybe I’m losing my taste now for “student” food.
I don’t know…I like cupcakes a lot!

What’s your dream vacation like?

Going to France for a couple of weeks, hanging out with my cousins, speaking French, not saying the word “orthogonal” once the entire time—that kind of thing!

If you didn’t go into a technical field, what would you have done in another life, and why?

I don’t think I can really answer that question. My whole life I’ve been on this kind of vector into a technical field, so I guess I never really thought hard about doing anything else—this is what I’ve really wanted to do.

But in pure fantasy? What about your poetry?

Sure. I could always fantasize about being a poet…or an astronaut. Astronaut I guess is borderline technical. So, ehh, poet/astronaut.

Do you perhaps have a favorite quote?

My email tagline says, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” by Gandhi. That’s probably my favorite quote.