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Do What You Love: Notre Dame’s Top Computer Scientist

Jeanette Mulvey
Updated Oct 22, 2012

As the head of Notre Dame’s computer science and engineering department, you’d think Kevin Bowyer would be consumed by technology. Lately, though, he’s been studying a lot of biology. That’s because his current research is focused on how iris-based eye recognition for identity purposes can be improved.

“That has led to the need to understand a lot of biology of the eye,” Bowyer said. Specifically, he’s trying to determine how the iris tissue deforms when your eye’s pupil dilates, how the iris changes over time and how wearing contact lenses affects a photo of the iris.

For Bowyer, who oversees more than 200 students and staff at Notre Dame’s Indiana campus, studying the eye allows him to bridge the gap between two disparate disciplines and explore the boundary where computer science and biology meet. Bowyer, who’s been at Notre Dame since 2001, said he didn’t think he’d end up in this particular career, but fate intervened and, in the end, he’s glad it did.

BusinessNewsDaily: What do you do?

Kevin Bowyer: I am the chairperson of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Notre Dame.  Part of my job is classroom teaching, part is working one-on-one with undergraduates and graduate students in research projects, part is publishing the results of our research, part is bringing in grants to support research projects, and part is leading the activities of our department (managing budgets, hiring and firing faculty, etc.). As I think about it now, the variety of activities in the job is one reason why I love it.

BND: How did you end up doing this for a living?

K.B.: I earned my Ph.D. in computer science from Duke University.  Then I was on the faculty at Duke, at the Swiss Federal institute of Technology (in Zurich), and at the University of South Florida (in Tampa, Florida).  I was actually happy with my job as a faculty member at the University of South Florida, but a friend talked me into visiting the University of Notre Dame, and they made me one of those “offers you can’t refuse” to come and be the chairperson of the department. 

As I said, I was pretty happy with the job that I had.  But I was very impressed with the campus on my visit to Notre Dame … and the dean who interviewed me was sincerely dedicated to improving the quality of the programs in the department.  So, even though it was not a position that I had been looking for, it was an opportunity that I could not pass up.

BND: What was the crucial decision you made that led you to this place in life?

K.B.: I think that there was more than one crucial decision.  There was the decision to go on for a Ph.D. rather than to start working with a bachelor’s degree. I was the first in my immediate family to go to graduate school, so this was not an “expected” or “automatic” decision.  Then there was the decision to go to graduate school in computer science at Duke, rather than some other subject or at some other school.  I think that this is important because experience at a private university like Duke prepares you for another private university like Notre Dame.  Both are very different than, say, the University of South Florida.  Then there was the decision to go on the interview visit to Notre Dame.  Once I had gone on the interview, it was more or less automatic that I would accept the offer if I got it.  But before I went, I can remember thinking about canceling the interview because I didn’t think there was much chance I would like Notre Dame.

BND: What did you want to be when you grew up?

K.B.: I can’t remember having my heart set in any serious way on any specific job when I was a child.  I probably had a phase of wanting to be a policeman, another fireman phase and maybe some sort of paleontologist phase. (Dinosaurs were a thing, you know.)

BND: Why do you love your job?

K.B.: I love my job because I get to work with very bright and creative people from all around the world, because I get to solve problems that haven’t been solved before and learn things that weren’t known before. Because I get large freedom in choosing what research problems to work on,  because the Notre Dame campus is a physically beautiful and inspiring place and because I enjoy the rhythm of academic life. New students come in each fall, a group graduates each spring, the summer has a slower pace; it is like seasons of the year.

BND: What’s the biggest misconception about your job?

K.B.: This is not about my personal job so much as about faculty jobs, in general.  There is a common stereotype about faculty members, that the good researchers are not good at teaching and that the good teachers are not good at research.  My experience as a department chair is that quite often a person is excellent at both teaching and research; the dedication to excellence spills over from whichever might be their stronger side to make the other side excellent as well.

One misconception about my job is that people often assume that if I am a department chair and have a named professor position at Notre Dame, then I must be Catholic. While of course there are many faculty at Notre Dame who are Catholic, I am not.

BND: If you didn’t do your job, whose job would you like to have and why?

K.B.: This might be the toughest of these questions.  I might want to be a director of research at a company like IBM or Amazon, because it would be interesting to see how a corporation approaches research differently than a university.   Or I might want to be in charge of India’s Unique ID program (“Aadhaar”), because the goal of the program is to use biometric technology to transform the social fabric of the second most populous country in the world.

BND: What’s your best advice to other people who are trying to find a job they love?

K.B.: Do something that you enjoy doing; don’t choose something because it is popular today, or because it was the top job in some survey in some magazine; if it is not the right fit for your personality and skills, it is not the thing to choose.

Do something that you can excel at.  It is a trite old saying – “excellence is its own reward.”  But it is easy to enjoy something that you are good at, and hard to enjoy something that you are just OK at.  And if you are one of the best at what you do, people will bring interesting opportunities to you.

Don’t be afraid to look at new opportunities.  Some people stay in one job or at one company all of their career.  It is “safe,” and less stressful, to avoid change.  But personal growth requires some challenge and some change.  In the long run, the value of the personal growth outweighs the value of avoiding stress/change.

Jeanette Mulvey has been writing about business for more than 20 years. Know someone who loves what they do? Tweet me @jeanettebnd with the hashtag #dowhatyoulove.

Jeanette Mulvey
Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University.