Seven months after breaking ground on its first academic building, the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus announced the addition of its first faculty cohort. The campus is bringing together computer science and computer engineering faculty to develop an entirely new, project-based curriculum as Virginia Tech prepares for the campus launch in 2024.

Kirk Cameron, professor of computer science, was appointed the campus’ first faculty lead. From 2018-22, he was associate department head for research and engagement within the College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science. Cameron is also an IEEE fellow, a distinguished member of the Association for Computing Machinery, and an associate editor for two computing publications.

“Kirk was the right person at the right time to take on the role of our first faculty lead,” said Lance Collins, vice president and executive director of the Innovation Campus. “He is working with colleagues across two disciplines to conduct national faculty searches in areas such as AI and quantum and to finalize our new project-based learning curriculum. His research in large-scale systems is an excellent addition to the Innovation Campus and to Virginia Tech in the D.C. area.”

We talked with Cameron about his new role and his expectations for the Innovation Campus over the next few years.

What drew you to the Innovation Campus?

I see in the Innovation Campus an intersection of opportunity and challenge. There’s tremendous opportunity in building a new campus and its community, one that scarcely happens in academia. We have the chance to bring to this area the incredible talent and reputation of Virginia Tech. One of these challenge-opportunities is the campus’ potential impact on this area, its development, and the growth of a new tech ecosystem that uses the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia location and its proximity to industry titans as leverage. Our goal is not to replicate Silicon Valley; it’s to meld together talent and opportunity to create this region’s own gravitational pull.

Tell us about your role as the Innovation Campus’ first “faculty lead.” What are some of the challenges?

Being the faculty lead is an interesting job. Many of us in academia have spent our careers trying to have an impact on the world from our fields and perspectives. Taking on this faculty lead role means turning that around and challenging yourself to put others first — something I‘ve tried to do in my mentoring activities over the years. In building out the Innovation Campus and its community, this role becomes a somewhat selfless opportunity. It doesn’t matter how you started your career or how you progressed to this position, but everything to do with how you work with others and encourage them to see the value in true collaboration.

As faculty lead, part of your role is recruiting new faculty to the campus. What are some of the top things you share with prospective faculty about opportunities the Innovation Campus creates?

The first thing I always start with is how great it is to work here, whether you’re in Alexandria or Blacksburg. Virginia Tech’s motto is Ut Prosim, or That I May Serve,  and not only is it our motto, but it also carries through to the culture. Everybody is here in service for the betterment of the university, the commonwealth, and the nation. There’s a vibe here that you’re not going to get anywhere else. We put our people first. We do our best to provide an environment where people will excel. In addition to the culture, the Innovation Campus is unique in its proximity to a region with enormous potential for tech growth. The campus presents many untapped opportunities to collaborate with industry and the federal government.

For 2024, along with opening a new building, the Innovation Campus is launching a new project-based Master of Engineering curriculum. What will differentiate this curriculum? What is going into the curriculum planning process?

We plan to create a curriculum that will be largely project-based. Experiential learning at Virginia Tech is not new. The difference with the Innovation Campus is that internal and external engagement is higher than ever. What we’re creating is this ecosystem in which local organizations are approaching us and saying, "We’re trying to push the envelope in this direction. We have these questions – is it feasible or possible to answer them?" We’re working closely with companies to identify problems they’re facing, then harness the ingenuity and energy of our students and faculty to solve them.

What areas of your research do you plan to continue to pursue or expand now that you are based in Northern Virginia?

The most interesting research problems for me to work on are the hardest. I work in large-scale systems, or with groups of computers that number in the hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands. We use these large-scale systems to drive our economy. We don’t know how we’ll use the systems of the future, we just know that we’ll need bigger and more powerful ones because the need for them is insatiable. There are so many challenges still ahead for large-scale systems to tackle that it’ll never end. My job is to continue pushing my research to help people make their possibilities a reality.

What are some of the benefits of bringing together computer science and computer engineering students and faculty under one roof?

All the hardest problems I’ve encountered in this field have been multidisciplinary. Computer science and computer engineering are sister fields. They are linked from the design of software and applications to the design of the hardware. If you’re not in the field, you may not realize these layers exist and that there’s a spectrum of needed talent to address problems. As computer science and computer engineering mature and become foundational sciences, they’re everywhere – from the design of our everyday items to the ecommerce we use to buy them. These challenges aren’t localized and instead involve many fields. What makes us special at the Innovation Campus is that we’ll have a community who are motivated to work on these problems collaboratively.

You recently moved from Blacksburg to Alexandria. How is your new hometown?

What’s interesting about Old Town Alexandria, where I’m living, is the small-town feel in a major metropolis. I almost feel like I’m in Blacksburg. That is, until I look across the Potomac River into D.C. and see the National Monument or the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials – or the planes flying in and out of DCA [Regan National Airport]. I feel like a little kid because I’m exploring the area and all it has to offer.

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