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Co-founder of CS department reflects on 50-year career

John Savage used time at State Department to develop international cybersecurity course

In a career spanning several disciplines and nations, John Savage has advised the Obama administration on cybersecurity, traveled around the world to provide his expertise to international leaders and co-founded the computer science department at Brown. Now, as he enters his 50th year at the University, Savage reflects on how his research and work outside of Brown inform his teaching and “help prepare the next generation” of computer scientists, he said.

The birth of a career, and a department

After earning his PhD in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Savage started his professional life at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. At that time, he had no intention of rejoining academia.

But in 1967, he wound up composing a “handwritten letter … to the chairperson of the division of engineering,” and Brown soon hired him as faculty.

“I was finding myself moving into computer science,” though Andy van Dam, professor of computer science and the department’s other co-founder, “was a little reluctant to believe I was a computer scientist,” he said.

Savage quickly shifted his research focus from electrical engineering to “some of the theoretical aspects of computer science,” said Thomas Doeppner, associate professor of computer science and vice chair of the computer science department.

When van Dam approached Savage about organizing a computer science program at Brown, they first proposed the creation of a center for computer science and then an undergraduate concentration. But after facing reluctance and rejection from other faculty members, “we got so frustrated that we decided we (had) no choice — we (had) to go ask for a department,” Savage said.

Other faculty members resisted the concept of a computer science program because they could not envision the future of computation, Savage said.

“There were certain people in the departments we came from that didn’t think the discipline would ever amount to anything — that it was just a fad at the time and that nothing would ever come of it,” said Doeppner, who was hired as an applied mathematics professor with the understanding that he, along with other new hires in the applied math and engineering departments, would become computer science professors in the new program. Savage and van Dam “lobbied the administration to get this to happen,” Doeppner added.

The University approved Savage and van Dam’s application for a computer science department in the 1978-79 academic year. Savage was instrumental in securing Kassar House, the first location of the computer science department, Doeppner said. “He worked daily with the construction team” to renovate the building “to the extent that they gave him a hard hat … and called him honorary foreman,” he added.

During his tenure as chair of the computer science department from 1985 to 1991, Savage also engineered the construction of the department’s current building, the Center for Information Technology, Doeppner said.

Career shift toward cybersecurity

In 2009 Savage started to work in the State Department through the Jefferson Science Fellowship Program, an opportunity that cultivated his interest in cybersecurity. He decided to work in the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, which had been created by former President Barack Obama only three months earlier.

His work in the State Department “put him squarely inside of the intelligence community” and exposed him to the “policy dimensions” of cybersecurity, Savage said. Since the field of cybersecurity was relatively new and he “was one of the few people who understood the policy side and the technology side,” Savage traveled extensively to consult with world leaders regarding how they could best prevent cyber threats, he added.

When he returned to Brown after finishing his fellowship, Savage filled in the University’s cybersecurity knowledge gaps by beginning to teach the course CSCI 1800: “Cybersecurity and International Relations,” he said. For him, the benefits of his cybersecurity work include “not only intellectual stimulation but also an opportunity for me to bring back to the University and to students in particular all the things that I’ve learned,” Savage added.

Constant curiosity in a changing field

Since Savage and his colleagues laid the foundations for computer science at Brown, the department has broadened and become more interdisciplinary, Savage said. Now, fellow faculty members approach computer science from an economic perspective, apply computation to biology, focus on big data analysis and also use encrypted databases to ensure more secure communications, he added.

Savage said that he hopes computer science will continue to collaborate with other fields and industries such as banking, economics, sociology and political science. “I would love to see political scientists take an interest in (cybersecurity) because we need to resolve many governance issues and … persuade governments that they should adhere to certain norms” for online activity, he added.

Throughout his career in a shifting field, Savage has always viewed intellectual stimulation as his primary motivation, he said.  “I could bend your ear about cancer and how it progresses, about the microbiome; I could bend your ear about world politics; I could talk to you about the electro-magnetic pulse threat that could be produced by a nuclear weapon exploding way above the atmosphere.”

First and foremost a teacher

Savage “takes a big interest in the educational process,” Doeppner said. He shares his passions with students and encourages their own interests, Doeppner added.

When Savage teaches, he “really puts his all into it,” said Anne Rothen ’17, one of Savage’s advisees who served as his teaching assistant. His “past experiences” beyond Brown enrich his classes, Rothen added.

Savage makes students his top priority, said Zoe Stoll ’17, one of Savage’s advisees who has been a teaching assistant for “Cybersecurity and International Relations” for three years. “He really listens to his students,” so he will modify his entire curriculum to meet their needs, Stoll added.

Before she took Savage’s classes, Stoll “didn’t even know what cybersecurity was,” she said. “He makes it really accessible to people who have no background at all.”

Savage helped Stoll get her first internship and find the connections she needed to obtain a job with a web security company, she said.

Savage will end his tenure on July 1 of next year. The computer science department will host a celebration in honor of Savage’s 50 years at Brown May 26.


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