For over a quarter of a century, Rensselaer’s Boleslaw Szymanski has occupied a place at the cutting edge of computer science, systems, and networks. In recognition of his accomplishments, he recently was appointed the inaugural Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science. Named for the Institute’s 16th president and his wife, the professorship is among the highest honors awarded to a faculty member.
Szymanski emigrated from Warsaw to the United States in 1982 to take a position at the University of Pennsylvania. Martial law had just been imposed in Poland, and Szymanski considers himself fortunate to have been permitted to leave the country. He remained at Penn until 1985, when he was recruited by Joe Flaherty, then chairman and founder of the new Department of Computer Science at Rensselaer.
“I came because the opportunities for interdisciplinary research and the work were so exciting here,” Szymanski says. “There were so many new challenges new problems and new solutions.”
“For those of us in academia, there’s a chain of goodwill,” Szymanski says.
“We learn from our teachers and are thankful for them.
We return the favor, in a sense, by teaching our own students
and helping them realize their full intellectual potential.”
In the years since then, Szymanski has made his mark at Rensselaer and worldwide. He is internationally renowned for his seminal contributions to parallel simulation and its applications to computer science, engineering, and biology. His solution to a classical problem of mutual exclusion on distributed computers, devised as an exam problem in his Operating Systems class at Rensselaer, is now commonly referred to as “Szymanski’s Mutual Exclusion Algorithm.” In honor of his achievements, in 1999 he was elected an IEEE fellow and in 2003 he received Rensselaer’s William H. Wiley Distinguished Faculty Award.
The founding director of the Institute’s Center for Pervasive Computing and Networking, Szymanski is also editor-in-chief of Scientific Programming and co-founder and editorial board member of Scalable Computing: Practice and Experience. He has published extensively and is in great demand as an entrepreneurship and industrial consultant. Szymanski holds a master’s in engineering from Warsaw Polytechnic Institute and a doctorate in computer science from the National Academy of Sciences, also in Warsaw.
His current research involves wireless and sensor networksthe communication between tiny, remote sensors that gather data in the field, the networks over which the data is transmitted, and the supercomputers that enable the data to be analyzed, interpreted, and
“We are focused on the integration of three types of technology: the computer, the sensor, and the wireless connection,” he says. “In the sensors, we have minuscule devices that not only can measure and compute but also can talk to other devices. The sensors report to back stations, which then bring the information to the entire world. That is the revolution in the way that computer technology products can sense the outside world and interact with humans and their environment.”
The applications are virtually unlimited because sensors can monitor everything from product performance to the physical environment to the workings of the human body. “We can know things that we couldn’t even begin to comprehend before,” Szymanski says.
He cites, as examples, using tiny sensors within the body to diagnose or monitor certain conditions, or placing sensors in a bird nest in the wild to gather information about exactly what happens during the first moments of baby birds’ lives.
Szymanski’s interest doesn’t end with the collection of data. “That’s when we move on to the larger computers,” he says, “to understand the interaction of the smaller events, how they create trends, and what those trends can teach us about dynamics of processes involved which can increase our ability to control our environment.”
One of the many issues in sensor network technology is using efficiently the sensor’s energy, usually supplied by batteries, and distributing computations among many sensors engaging the network in communication and computation simultaneously, a challenge that Szymanski has tackled successfully in the past during his research on parallel simulations. “It is very typical for computer scientists to look at a similar problem for different technologies,” he says. “The issues of how to network and how to divide the work among many nodes are important, whether you’re collecting data with wireless sensors or engaged in parallel simulations.”
A “Chain of Goodwill”
Although he takes pride in his research and scientific accomplishments, Szymanski is even more gratified by the progress of his graduate and undergraduate students whom he engaged in his research. Many of them have gone on to successful careers in public and private research labs and academic institutions. He maintains contact with all of them and now collaborates with some as colleagues.
“For those of us in academia, there’s a chain of goodwill,” Szymanski says. “We learn from our teachers and are thankful for them. We return the favor, in a sense, by teaching our own students and helping them realize their full intellectual potential.
“If you accomplish that, you can have a positive impact on your students,” he adds. “In some cases, you can even change their lives. And that’s very rewarding.”