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Professor Bill Punch, International Top Researcher and Innovating Leader

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Professor Bill Punch.

Professor Bill PunchBill Punch received his B.S. in Biochemistry in 1979 and his Ph.D. in Computer Science in 1989 from Ohio State University.

He joined the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Michigan State University where he is currently an Associate Professor. He has been the director of the High Performance Computing Center at Michigan State since 2006. His research interests are primarily the theory and application of evolutionary computation, but also does work in data mining, computational biology and security. He is co-director of the Genetic Algorithms Research and Application Group (GARAGe) and a founding member of the Center for Biological Modeling, now the Quantitative Biology Initiative, both at Michigan State. He is also on the executive committee of the new NSF Science and Technology Center known as BEACON at MSU, which has as its theme "Evolution in Action". He has published a book through Pearson with Rich Enbody titled "The Practice of Computing Using Python", used as a CS1 introduction to programming. A second version of the book (in Python 3) will be released in March 2012.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:33: As author of the "ACM Python Learning Path", why should the audience try the learning program?
"....There are any number of tasks in any domain that require a little bit of programming, so it is our opinion that learning a little programming (which is what the Learning Path is about), is something that would benefit everybody even in their everyday lives...."

:01:03: Do you think ACM Python Learning Path provides an introduction for people who want to get into even deeper programming, perhaps in Python?
"....Python is a particularly useful language for getting practical work done (modifying reports, generating graphs, doing simple statistics). If you have any background in programming whatsoever I think the Learning Path gets you through the basics of what Python is about and what works...."

:02:17: Is it fun to write a book? Why is it much harder than you thought?
"....There's so much minutia that you have to take care of, we needed to provide programming examples, projects, slides for our instructors ⁚ so there were more details that we had to take care of than I thought about...."

:03:19: What are some valuable lessons from your book released in March 2012?
"....It's an Open Source project which means that there are literally thousands of people who are working on Python-related stuff every day....The language is dynamic and growing....It's fun...."

:05:05: Can you share some Python effective tips?
"....A set of data structures that are in built for you to use....Multi-phasic views of programming....The way Python works with strings...."

:07:29: Why is Python a good introductory programming language?
"....Python tries to focus on doing one thing for each concept...."

:08:04: In your experience what makes a successful intro programming course?
"....A course that is focused on having students do programming on their own or in groups is a way to get through to the students and get them to accomplish things...."

:08:50: What do you hope to accomplish as director of the High Performance Computing Center (HPC) at Michigan State?
"....High performance computing is using larger, more powerful computers in combination to solve more difficult problems....That's what HPC needs, as well as to make sure that high performance computing and their methods are available to everyone...."

:09:58: What is new and exciting in High Performance Computing?
"....Many centers are focusing on how we use so-called GPUs (graphical programming units) to solve problems and providing tools to make those available...."

:10:38: Describe areas of controversy in the theory and application of evolutionary computation?
"....My favorite description of evolutionary computation is that it's always the second best way to solve a problem...."

:11:40: What are the most productive research directions in data mining?
"....The current popular ones are the use of social network information to try to help people and companies do a better job of mining their data...."

:12:13: How would you describe the major challenges in computational biology?
"....The challenge for computational biology is the unbelievably enormous amount of data that standard machines that can sequence. A genome can generate so much data that's very difficult to deal with...."

:13:05: What areas keep you excited about your research in security?
"....Automated ways to try and discover flaws in code that's been released to the public without the source code...."

:14:03: What will you accomplish in 2012 as co-director of the Genetic Algorithms Research and Application Group (GARAGe)?
"....What I personally hope to accomplish as a part of the BEACON group is to apply some evolutionary computation techniques to areas like Security and Computational Biology, and bring those computational approaches to some practical use in other sciences...."

:15:43: Please briefly explain what evolutionary computation is?
"....Evolutionary computation creates adaptive individuals to environments. That's what happens over time....You can take this idea of a representation and a function and put stress on that representation and try to adapt that over time using mutation and crossover...."

:17:09: Let's expand the question to what is the Quantitative Biology Initiative (QBI)?
"....It was kind of a precursor to the kinds of stuff that BEACON eventually stood for in terms of bringing biologists and computational sciences together...."

:17:48: What have we missed? Can you profile your extensive research history and valuable lessons you wish to share from each of your top research areas?
"....I've always been interested and motivated by the link between biology and computing and that's driven a lot of the work that I've done ⁚ particularly evolutionary computation....If you're going to do research it's important that you have an application in mind when you do it....Having the opportunity to work with really interesting and smart people even if they are not in the area you're in is probably one of the best things you can do...."

:19:07: What are your most difficult challenges in research and what valuable lessons do you wish to share?
"....To come up with really interesting questions to try to solve....You have to be a pretty good writer in order to get your papers published and to get people to pay attention to your grants...."

:19:53: Can you describe some additional areas of controversy or much discussion in the areas that you research?
"....Evolution is controversial on the face of it...."

:20:54: Why should researchers and executives join non-profit associations?
"..... If you're trying to learn or if you’re trying to educate people on a particular problem then the best way to do that is to present it to the world and not put it behind a closed doorway. In terms of dissemination and quality of work, open source, non-profit kind of approaches are some of the best...."

:22:16: What specific technologies should IT practitioners embrace today and in two years, five years?
"....I think especially in the area of IT and technology, I think what people have to be most cognizant of is not necessarily a particular technology that might be out there, but that there's going to be another technology out there...."

:23:38: What kind of resources would you use to stay abreast with what’s happening?
"....Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), which provides a window into what's new and exciting...."

:23:54: What specific technologies should businesses stay abreast with into the future?
"....I think businesses more and more are worried about data and the amount of data that they have to process...."

:25:37: Please make predictions for the future, their implications, and how we can best prepare?
"....IT professionals and students to be aware that things change very quickly. You have to be adapted to change...."

:27:54: What are your thoughts on computing as a recognized profession with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, recognized credentials and accredited academic programs?
[See and the Global Industry Council,]
"....If people are going to stay abreast of things that are changing in the computer environments, they are going to have to do something. They are going to need that kind of help to stay current...."

:28:54: From your extensive travels and work, can you share any stories (amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing)?
"....We have a tradition in my Introductory class that I spend the first ten minutes going over interesting technology stuff in the news. We look at stuff that is absurd, amazing, interesting...."

:30:19: What are your most interesting hobbies and why?
"....My current big hobby is glass blowing...."

:31:01: If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....Do we really need text books? How do we do this in the future?...."