Zue Reflects On Time As Director

 Zue Reflects On Time As Director
Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL photographer
Professor Victor Zue is looking forward to returning to his teaching and research committments at MIT.
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Sitting in his office on the fourth floor of the Stata Center, Delta Electronics Professor Victor Zue smiled mischievously when asked about the biggest challenge of leading CSAIL, MIT’s largest interdepartmental laboratory.

“The simple word is ‘big,’” he said with a laugh. “The fact that it’s huge makes the work very daunting. If I want to talk to each one of the PIs once a year for an hour that’s 100 hours or two and a half weeks of doing nothing else.”

Despite the difficulties involved with leading a lab that currently includes over 100 principal investigators and 50 research groups, Zue has spent the last 10 years in leadership positions, first as director of the Lab for Computer Science (LCS), then as the co-director of CSAIL and finally as the director of CSAIL. Running such a complex and vibrant organization requires a special type of person, according to Professor John Guttag.

“He contemplates doing things at a scale (that) requires a lot of chutzpah,” said Guttag.

When Zue first came to MIT 41 years ago as a graduate student he had no idea his career would reach such great heights. Back then Zue was making waves in acoustic phonetics and phonology, codifying the acoustic manifestation of speech sounds. He then went on to explore the field of spoken language interfaces, working to make human-computer interactions more natural, as the head of the Spoken Language Systems Group at LCS.

As the co-director and director of CSAIL, Zue made it his mission to not only provide stable ground for world-class research, but to also create a family atmosphere among lab members.

The result of Zue’s efforts are a lab where graduate students and faculty members comfortably mingle in common areas, and an elevator ride is never absent of greetings from colleagues and friends. The closely-knit community at CSAIL has also promoted collaboration between PIs, making the lab noticeable for its breadth and diversity of research. At CSAIL you can find Professor Erik Demaine of the Theory of Computation Group collaborating with Professor Daniela Rus of the Distributed Robotics Lab, and Professor William Freeman of the Computer Vision Research Group working alongside Professor Russ Tedrake of the Robot Locomotion Group.

“I think that it takes somebody, the director and his team, to do everything he or she can to create opportunities for people to interact with one another,” explained Zue. “People joke about the fact that if you’re a PI you can eat your way through the whole week. Monday is the departmental lunch and Tuesday is systems and Wednesday theory and Thursday is the PI/community and Friday AI. I firmly believe those social interactions are absolutely crucial for people to feel comfortable with one another and work together.”

Beyond fostering a friendly work environment, Zue has worked hard to ensure ample opportunities for CSAIL members to work together on large-scale and well-funded research projects. One such example is the Quanta T-Party Project, a collaboration between Quanta Computers and CSAIL that currently includes nearly 10 percent of CSAIL members working on creating an integrated virtual information environment. Additionally, Zue founded the Industry Affiliates Program as a gateway for potential industry partners to learn more about research underway at the lab.

Above all, Zue feels his primary mission as director has been to act as a positive steward for the lab, caring for and supporting every member.

“I’m a people person. I care about the lab, I care about the Institute, but above all I care about the people. So interacting with people - whether it be students, support staff, HQ or faculty – is something that I enjoy that very much,” said Zue. “I also think of the job more as stewardship, that is providing the best possible environment for people to succeed. Whether it’s a graduate student, a faculty member or any staff member, that’s my goal.”

Lab members concur, including Professor Daniela Rus, who said of Zue’s leadership, “He really inspires people to want to do their best and to be their best.”

Zue is now embarking on his first sabbatical, which he said will include time in Asia, as well as relaxing in Hawaii. When he returns to MIT next year, he is excited to return to his research and teaching commitments. Zue is seeing this next phase in his career as a new opportunity to pursue his passion for teaching and apply his zeal for education to his research, perhaps working on new technologies for educational purposes.

“I have given 10 years and all of myself to this lab, and I think 10 years is a long enough period for a person to try to make a difference,” said Zue. “And yet it’s not long enough that I would have no hope of going back to teaching and research.”

Abby Abazorius, CSAIL