Interview with Dr. Bruce Donald

This week I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Bruce Donald and ask him a bit about his life.

Dr. Donald graduated from Yale with a major in Russian Language and Literature.  He had been always been interested in language, taking French and Latin, and became interested in Russian philosophy.  A visit to the Soviet Union during high school also proved influential.  He notes that the accomplished professors at Yale had a significant impact on him.

So the obvious question is how a major in Russian Language and Literature became the first step to becoming a professor of computer science, biochemistry, and electrical and computer engineering. Dr. Donald programmed throughout high school, and worked as a research analyst at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design during most summers of his undergraduate years.  After graduating from Yale, he essentially walked into Harvard, sat down at a computer, and convinced them he could program. Harvard hired him.

For graduate school, he applied two places: Oxford for Russian literature and MIT for Computer Science.  After being accepted to both, he chose the latter. After MIT, he became a professor at Cornell, then a visiting professor at Stanford.  For a few years he worked at Paul Allen’s company (Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft). When I asked about choosing between academia and industry, he noted the constraints of projects in companies.  Although he enjoyed his time working in Palo Alto, he preferred having his own lab and having the freedom of working on projects that could take 10-15 years.

At Stanford, he met his wife and together they found jobs at Dartmouth, and now they are both professors here at Duke.

Looking at his research, he has collaborated with several departments, worked in several fields.  When I asked him what it was like to have such a variety of projects, he looked kind of confused.  While I saw article titles that looked very different, projects related to artificial intelligence, robotics, neuroscience, and molecular biology, he saw several related aspects of a larger idea.  He tells me, there is an idea of abstraction in computer science that doesn’t exist in biology.  His lab applies computer science to biology, applying algorithms to solve a variety of problems. The projects are a way of proving by example a larger idea.

After speaking with him, I feel even more grateful to be a part of his lab, to have the incredible opportunity to learn from him.  His long, impressive resume speaks for itself. He’s also in a band, which is pretty cool.

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