The following post is based on some reminiscences I shared during a memorial event held at the University of Toronto on January 22, 2010, and is recreated from my speaking notes. It’s been too easy to be “unable” to summon the energy/courage/right frame of mind to put these remarks in the form of a post, leading to many months of delay. - ceb
I’d like to say a few words about what Sam meant to the Department of Computer Science (DCS). As a friend, departmental colleague, and member of the same research group, Sam had a tremendous influence on me, just as he did on everyone he met. But as a Department Chair, I was privileged to know Sam on slightly different dimension than many of you. There are qualities that characterized Sam’s personal and scholarly life—his brilliance and creativity, enthusiasm and optimism, a genuine thirst for understanding and desire to change the world, and his generosity—he didn’t care who changed the world, or who got credit for it, he just wanted to contribute and help others contribute as well. He exemplified these same qualities as a departmental colleague and a member of the DCS family.
I first met Sam in 2001 when he interviewed here at the University of Toronto, and still recall the level of excitement that Sam generated, across the department and for me personally. I looked back last week through my email archive, and there is nobody in 19 years as I faculty member that I lobbied harder to attract than Sam (a lot of emails to Sam, to our chair at the time, and our hiring committee). We’ve interviewed some great candidates in this department, some of whom are much closer to me from a research perspective. But there was a spark in Sam that you knew was going to make his contributions to our research culture go far beyond those of someone with “mere scientific credentials.” He was clearly going to make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. How true it was. I had just joined DCS a year and half earlier, and while I knew this was a terrific department, landing Sam that spring reinforced for me that this was a place on the move.
I wish I had more research interaction and collaboration with Sam. I became department chair only a couple of years after he arrived. This unfortunately limited my collaboration opportunities. Still he was one of those people who wanted to share everything. If you ran into him the hallway, he always had some tidbit of research to share. With Geoff, every couple of weeks he’d corner you as say, “I’ve finally figured out how the brain works. Do you have a couple minutes?” With Sam, it could be big stuff or small stuff. He was fascinated by it all. And it was rarely his own: I’ve got an email folder full of links from Sam saying “I read this paper, you might like it.” Or “Check out this cool Matlab code.” Or… It was simply part of his makeup, to share with his colleagues like this, whether inside and outside the AI group. Everything was fair game for him and that made him a terrific connector, something that every department needs.
Sam was a terrific supervisor with his own students and postdocs for the same reason. He believed that his role was to make everyone a better scholar. I’ve seen Sam in the classroom on a few occasions, and his talents as a teacher were off the charts. (I’ve also read hundreds of stellar teaching evaluations, and had to scramble to find lecture halls for his grad seminar, which routinely attracted 70, 80, 90 students and auditors from across campus). But what really left an impression on me was watching him interact with graduate students in research group meetings or thesis exams, including those of a number of my own PhD students. He would challenge them, push them to see extensions of their work, or connections with other work, or gradually lead them to find holes in their lines of argument themselves. But he was so gentle about it: if they didn’t understand a question or didn’t quite grasp what he was getting at, it was always “his fault” for not being clear enough, and he’d eventually just lead them until they reached their own conclusions. What could have been a completely intimidating experience was inevitably turned into an incredibly positive journey of discovery.
As a scientist, his own contributions were phenomenal. As a department chair, you dream of tenure cases like Sam’s, where the biggest challenge is finding enough superlatives to describe the quality and impact of his research, to describe the awards and recognitions, and explain his phenomenal teaching. The other challenge is finding referees—he worked with everyone! He was this way as a scientist. Josh Tenenbaum at MIT wrote on Sam’s memorial blog about Sam’s impact on the machine learning community, that to Sam “our field was one big joint effort.” He was there to help the entire machine learning community, and he was there to spread its impact far and wide. There aren’t a lot of computer scientists that publish in Science, in Cell, in the Astronomical Journal, in the Astrophysical Journal, and in the Journal of Computational Biology. And frankly I don’t think there are any, apart from Sam that published in them all.
He was the same way as a departmental citizen. He wanted to make our department a better place and wanted to help others do the same. Sam was not a huge fan of the pace at which we can effect change in a university environment: he was a man on the move with a lot to accomplish. But he knew that it mattered and he cared deeply. He approached DCS and his departmental colleagues (and department chairs) the same way he approached his science and wanted to help everyone be a bit better in what they do. And he’d occasionally have to treat a faculty member in a department meeting like a grad student, gently cajoling and leading them in a specific direction, but ultimately letting them draw their own conclusions.
Department chairs think often about the future of a department, about the next generation of leaders, and who has the respect and admiration of their colleagues, the personal qualities and commitment for leadership roles. Sam was someone whose name was always discussed in this way from the minute he arrived. But it was interesting with Sam: we had several conversations about this over the years, always at his instigation. He’d often say that he couldn’t understand how people like me (and Sven, vice-chair at the time) could devote themselves to an administrative job such as department chair. Sam had the leadership qualities to do it: frankly, he could do my job in heartbeat. You could tell he’d thought about it, and always had some worries about his abilities. But I think I understand now just what lay at the heart of his concerns. It comes down to Sam having to be fully invested, including emotionally, in anything he took on. As much as we all care about our colleagues and friends, about DCS and UofT, you sometimes have to detach yourself from the personal and emotional details of the job. I think Sam simply cared too much about his colleagues, about DCS, about anyone that he knew, to imagine how that was possible.
We talked a lot as he came to grips with the balance of family and career. When Sam and Meredith moved to San Francisco during his leave, and when they finally moved to New York, it was difficult for the department. But we all understood. And with Sam, we all knew he would remain part of the DCS extended family. Once you were in Sam’s orbit, you could not escape his gravitational field. In some ways it felt like we’d simply expanded as a department (as did NYU): and you could already see the stream of students and postdocs moving back and forth along the path that Sam helped build. It some sense it was like he hadn’t left at all. In early January, we had an extended email exchange about meetings and connections between DCS and Google. Sam’s departure from DCS in September was not a loss so much as it was a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.
Now, we are without a doubt a much poorer department and university.
Sam, I’m sorry I never made it to the climbing gym with you; but Rich and I could never convince you to get out on the ice with us either.
We miss you more than mere words can express.