James Cowling

James Cowling
Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL photographer

Where did you grow up:

I grew up in a fairly rural area an hour north of Sydney, Australia. I certainly didn't come to MIT to get away from life back home, but am slowly becoming a local around here and enjoying life in Boston.

What was your academic path before coming to grad school at MIT?

I'm sure many students spend years dreaming of going to MIT, but it really wasn't an option I considered until right up to the application deadline. Heading overseas to pursue postgraduate studies is very uncommon back in Australia but I finally decided that if I really wanted to to good research I owe it to myself to learn from the best people. With that in mind I gave MIT a shot, and here I am today. I was fortunate to have spent a year at UCSD as an exchange student during my undergraduate studies. This reassured me that moving to another country to study really isn't as scary an experience as it sounds. I was also helped along by a Fulbright Scholarship to MIT -- these are offered to students in 140 different countries to encourage study and cultural exchange in the US. Prior to MIT I studied Computer Science at The University of Sydney, and continued with an additional "honours" year which gave me a taste for research. I also spent a year working at a government research organization, developing a product for satellite communications. That's quite far removed from what I'm working on now, but certain things you learn are fundamental to all aspects of computer science.

What department are you currently working in, and when did you start there?

This is my second year at MIT - I joined the PhD program in EECS in Fall 2005. I'm a member of the Programming Methodology Group and, despite the name, conduct research in reliable storage and distributed systems.

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?

I've just started work on a reliable distributed storage system. Hopefully one day people will use such a system to store their valuable data out in the ether of the Internet, backed by clever replication, security and caching policies. We want this data to be secure, confidential and always available, along with a host of other nice properties. I enjoy work in computer systems because I feel it's really fundamental to what tasks computers are capable of, even if most people don't understand the underlying workings of their OS or filesystem. Working on a project I envisage people will actually use in the outside world, and benefit greatly from, is an obvious bonus on top of the intellectual merit.

What are your future plans?

I keep changing my mind about what I want to do--I guess that means I've got my options open. Most often the ambition is to become a professor and set up a research group back in Australia. Either way I want my job to be something that interests me, which means working with others on research and new ideas. We'll see how it pans out, I've got a few years ahead of me till graduation.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Having a girlfriend, family and friends on the other side of the world can get a little tricky from time to time. Fortunately the graduate student stipend can be stretched far enough for a plane ticket every now and then. I've also found it isn't too hard to convince people to spend their next holiday in the US. The upshot is the opportunity of establishing an additional base of friends and colleagues.