Alumnus honors mentors with first Ph.D. fellowships in the Department of Computer Science
Ph.D. alumnus Greg Lavender is senior vice president and chief technology officer at VMware and a former member of the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.
February 18, 2021
A struggling Ph.D. student once approached Greg Lavender for the answer to a dissertation-related question. “He was really angry that I wouldn’t tell him the answer,” Lavender recalled. “I told him that if I knew the answer, it wouldn’t be a Ph.D. research problem. Nobody knew the answer.”
As a former Ph.D. student himself, Lavender knows how difficult it can be to solve previously unanswered research questions in computer science. That is something he had to do while completing his dissertation at Virginia Tech. Knowing how to creatively solve challenging problems is what he helped many undergraduate and graduate students learn while on the faculty of the computer science department at the University of Texas at Austin. Now, as a philanthropist he has endowed the first two Ph.D. fellowships in the Department of Computer Science, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the department. In doing so, Lavender will continue to advance knowledge in a field that has fascinated him since childhood by enabling students during a pivotal phase of their graduate studies.
Graduate fellowships are usually offered to incoming graduate students to help persuade them to choose one university over another. Lavender chose a different approach. The fellowships he created — one named for Emeritus Professor of Computer Science Richard Nance and the other for Professor of Computer Science Dennis Kafura — support students in the home-stretch of their Ph.D. studies as they strive to complete their dissertations.
“The idea is that when you reach the point where you need to be 100 percent focused on your research, that’s when unfettered financial assistance really matters,” Lavender said. “It’s when you need to focus and double down, and fellowships can help eliminate other distractions in life, like serving as a teaching assistant.”
The Dr. Richard E. Nance Graduate Fellowship in Computer Science and Dr. Dennis G. Kafura Graduate Fellowship in Computer Science, which Lavender endowed in honor of his master’s and Ph.D. advisors, respectively, come at a particularly exciting time for computer science at Virginia Tech. The program is expanding dramatically as part of a statewide push to increase the number of graduates in engineering and computer science. Department Head Cal Ribbens estimated the number of computer science faculty on the Blacksburg campus will nearly double over the next six-to-eight years, and the number of Ph.D. candidates will roughly triple.
“Fellowships enable high-achieving, high potential graduate students not to worry about their funding for an important chunk of time,” Ribbens said. “It’s a big deal if they don’t have to take an internship or teach a class. It allows them to just focus on research. When potential graduate students see there are these kind of special graduate fellowships available in our department, it makes our ability to recruit that much stronger.”
Lavender’s father was a first-generation computer scientist who taught his mathematically inclined son binary and hexadecimal arithmetic when Lavender was in elementary school. He then inspired him to learn Fortran programming as a young teenager and helped him build his first computer from an electronics kit. On visits to his father’s workplace, Lavender became increasingly fascinated by computer networking just as the early Internet was emerging in the 1970s.
After earning his bachelor’s degree with honors (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Georgia in 1983, Lavender worked for three years in Washington, D.C., implementing various network communications protocols, including the early Internet protocols. He also undertook evening graduate courses toward a master’s degree in software engineering at Virginia Tech’s graduate center in Northern Virginia. Lavender’s strong desire to focus full-time on his studies and do research led him to transfer to the Blacksburg campus in fall 1986.
Lavender completed his master’s degree in software engineering in 1988. Nance, who advised Lavender, encouraged him to continue on to earn a Ph.D. despite lucrative job offers that Lavender was receiving from industry, pointing out that the experience in advanced research would help Lavender have a wider range of career options in the future. Due to his interest at the time in the emerging area of concurrent object-oriented programing applied to networking software, Lavender switched to Kafura as an advisor for his Ph.D.
Nance, who headed the Department of Computer Science from 1973-79, said he views having a fellowship named for him by Lavender to be “a career defining honor. I was very deeply moved by his identifying me as having been one of his mentors. In terms of what it means to the department, fellowships like this can be very instrumental in advancing the research program.”
Kafura said that by the time he started advising Lavender, “I thought of him in so many ways as more of a colleague or a co-investigator than just an advisee or student. He was both personally and professionally a pretty mature guy. He had some industry experience and was a very creative person. He was great, technically — a world class software engineer — with a lot of experience in networking and systems, and also had a deep appreciation for theory.”
Kafura, who headed the Department of Computer Science from 1998-2008, added that he is “very grateful to Greg for valuing and recognizing our relationship in this way by creating a fellowship that’s permanent and keeps on giving back to the department.”
While Lavender was working on his dissertation, Kafura and Lavender were invited to a give research talks at a premier research consortium in Austin called MCC, short for Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. That led to Lavender being invited to MCC as a visiting research scientist in 1991. MCC had the latest advanced multi-processor computer servers and networking equipment, which enabled him to implement his research ideas to prove out their practical viability. MCC also had a close research relationship with the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, which led to Lavender becoming an adjunct faculty member for over a decade and serving for three years as associate chairman for academics.
Over the course of his 38-year career in academia and industry, Lavender co-founded two successful network software startup ventures, which led him through acquisition to join Sun Microsystems in 2000. Over a decade, Lavender rose to become vice president of engineering for Sun’s world-class Unix operating system division. He then moved over to Cisco Systems as a corporate vice president of network software engineering. Lavender then spent six years at Citigroup as chief technology officer for cloud architecture and engineering, creating a secure global cloud for financial services. That led VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger (now Intel’s CEO) to recruit Lavender and appoint him as the CTO of VMware.
The first two Ph.D. students who will benefit from fellowships Lavender established are Ya Xiao, who is developing artificial intelligence tools to detect or fix security vulnerabilities in computer code, and Setor Zilevu, who is developing interactive interfaces for a semi-automated, in-home-based system for stroke survivors.
Xiao said the Kafura Fellowship that she is receiving “gives me a great opportunity to devote myself to research for the entire summer this year. … This kind of fellowship also gives me a strong feeling that I’m doing a good job and makes me more comfortable that I can be a good researcher. This is very important to a young researcher like me.”
Zilevu said that the Nance Fellowship “really opens the door for me to explore the realm of stroke rehabilitation further by running user studies with patients and therapists at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago. I am very excited, because this fellowship provides me the opportunity to advance my research to better understand how I can meet the needs of patients and therapists within this space.”
The graduate fellowships Lavender has created extend a history of accomplishment, generosity, and engagement that has already made a big impact on the Department of Computer Science. He was named the department’s Distinguished Alumnus in 2010, has served on the department’s advisory board, and has given generously toward co-endowing an undergraduate scholarship named for former Department Head Barbara Ryder. The department is part of the university’s College of Engineering, and in 2014 Lavender was inducted into the college’s Academy of Engineering Excellence, an elite group of alumni who have distinguished themselves professionally as leaders.
Ribbens, the current department head, said having endowed fellowships is a mark of distinction that sends a powerful message about the caliber of computer science education at Virginia Tech.
“It’s tremendously encouraging to see one of our alumni honor his mentors in this way,” Ribbens said. “So much of graduate education is about the mentoring relationship between advisors and students. This speaks to that and honors it in a very special way.”