From Student to Teacher: Rutgers University–Camden Graduate to Earn Doctoral Degree and Begin Teaching Career

James Davis

James Davis

Not long ago, James Davis sat in a Rutgers University–Camden classroom, soaking in all he could learn about the intricate details of computer science and taking on complicated research problems that could sometimes take months to solve.

“That’s what attracted me to pursue an advanced degree,” Davis said back in 2013, while he was working toward his doctoral degree in operations research and information engineering at Cornell University. “My undergraduate research prepared me quite well to navigate the Ph.D. landscape.”

Davis will earn that doctoral degree this May and soon after that, will begin his own teaching career at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he will teach courses in algorithms and optimization and impart his knowledge on students that — he hopes — have the same thirst for research that he did as a Rutgers–Camden student.

“Teaching was only recently a goal,” says Davis, a 2010 Rutgers University–Camden graduate. “I have always been interested in doing research. This is still my main motivator. Teaching is interesting to me because I like to mentor students but mostly I want to make an impact by doing good research.”

At Rutgers–Camden, Davis published a research paper about maximizing the efficiency — and reducing the time — of jobs done on one machine. He credits that experience, along with the guidance he received from Rajiv Gandhi, an associate professor of computer science at Rutgers–Camden, with helping him to see how much he enjoyed doing research.

“Rajiv gave me a Zen-like attitude towards academics: do good work, and work that you like, and you will end up happy,” Davis says. “Rajiv, of course, had a huge impact on my career trajectory. Without him I wouldn’t have pursued my Ph.D. or gotten a position as a professor. I would have likely continued working at the grocery store where I worked when I first met him.”

Davis was a math major at Rutgers–Camden and took Gandhi’s computer science course his senior year. Taking the course convinced Davis to stay at Rutgers–Camden for an additional year to pursue his computer science degree.

Davis says he’d like to try to emulate Gandhi in his own teaching style and hopes to get his students to understand that techniques in computer science can be applied in many lot different contexts.

“Most of my thesis is based on applying approximations algorithms, a branch of computer science, to problems focused on customer behavior in retail,” Davis says. “I would want my students to see this range of applicability and have the tools to use computer science whenever they need it.”

Davis says he is eager to start teaching and continue researching, but has broader goals in mind.

“To have the biggest impact, I want my research to be applied. In the not too distant future I want to start developing relationships with companies and use computer science to understand the problems they face.”

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