Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Afzal Upal

Dr. Afzal Upal

Dr. Afzal Upal joined the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in July as the chair of the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department. He has more than 20 years of experience in the computing field, with an expertise in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Upal has held several technical and leadership positions in the computer science and software engineering industry and government, however his love for education brought him back to academia.

“My mother was an elementary school teacher and I’ve always believed that there is nothing more noble or rewarding than teaching the future generations,” said Upal. “My experience in computing industry and government allows me to draw on real world problems to inspire them to develop solutions that will make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Upal earned his bachelor’s degree in math and physics at the University of Punjab, before continuing his education at the University of Saskatchewan, where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science. He later earned a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Alberta. He most recently led the Computing and Information Science Department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, as founding chair.

How did you first develop an interest in the field of computer science, and specifically artificial intelligence?

My mother tells me that I was always a curious kid who wanted to know everything about everything. During my childhood, I remember staying up late to watch Carl Sagan’s TV show called “Cosmos.” He inspired me to become a scientist. He convinced me that science was the best method for learning the truth about our world. Growing up in Pakistan, I never heard of computer science. The field only became well known right around the time I was picking my major after my family moved to Canada. Computer science quickly established itself as a new way of looking at scientific problems that had long gone unsolved, such as the four-color theorem. Within computer science, the discipline that addresses the hardest and the most intractable problems is artificial intelligence. That’s what attracted me to it. I wanted to spend my time and energy solving the problems that most people thought were unsolvable. I also knew that solutions to these problems would improve lives of people all around the world.

What interested you in the position at UW-Platteville?

I was attracted by the growth potential in the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department and by the quality of life that the tri-state region has to offer. CSSE is one of the youngest departments at the university in terms of the average age of our faculty. We are growing in terms of programs, student enrollment and facilities. We started a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in cybersecurity this fall. We are adding a cybersecurity lab to offer our students hands-on training in this rapidly growing sub-field of computer science. We’re also looking at ways to make it easier for UW-Platteville students to study computer science, software engineering and cybersecurity. We are planning on launching an exciting new set of programs called CS+X. The CS + X programs offer students a flexible program of study incorporating a strong grounding in computer science and any other academic discipline of their choosing, such as criminal justice, political science or music. Students graduate with computing skills as well as skills in a field in which they’d like to apply the computing solution. I truly believe that computer science is for everyone rather than a select few. Everyone needs to know some computer science to function as a responsible citizen in the 21st century. The CS+X program will allow more UW-Platteville students to learn these valuable skills than ever before.

Now that you’ve been at UW-Platteville for a few months, what are your first impressions?

I love the can-do attitude that everyone has. Everyone from upper administration to students looks for a way to get things done rather than finding a way to say no. I am so impressed by our students. They have such a positive attitude. I am so impressed by our faculty who have remained steadfast in their commitment to teach despite everything 2020 has thrown at them. I love that even though UW-Platteville is a large comprehensive university, it still has the feeling of a small liberal arts college. You really have a chance to get to know people as people rather than as numbers.

What opportunities in your department are you most looking forward to?

I am really excited about teaching computing to new types of students through our CS+X programs. These are the students who are not traditionally attracted to computer science. They are not interested in computers for their own sake. They want to learn just enough about computers to be able to use them to become better business administrators, better scientists, better forensics professionals, or better musicians. They are looking for careers in new and exciting fields, such as digital forensics, computational advertising, bioinformatics and digital humanities, which demand computing skills as well as expertise in another field of study.

I am also looking forward to growing our graduate programs. We just successfully launched our online MS in cybersecurity. We will soon add an on-campus MS in computer science. This will also allow us to provide our undergraduate students opportunities to take graduate classes and get both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years. We’re also looking at developing graduate certificates that will provide students skills in demand in today’s marketplace such as cybersecurity, data analytics, and software development.

It seems like an exciting time to be in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning – what kind of developments, trends or opportunities are occurring in the field right now that current students can look forward to?

Since the computing revolution has already changed so much of our world, we forget that it’s only in its infancy. The automation that is being unleashed by intelligent algorithms is poised to transform every aspect of our lives. Autonomous vehicles will transform how we travel, live, and work. Personalized medicine will transform how diseases are treated. Computational advertising is transforming the marketing industry by allowing marketers to automatically design ads suited to their target audience’s preferences. Digital humanities is transforming how social scientists model human societies. Armed with computational criminology, digital forensics and bioinformatics tools, modern day sleuths are able to solve crimes long sought unsolvable. As UW-Platteville develops and expands its computer science program, our students will have a hand in shaping how our digital future unfolds. By equipping more of our students with these valuable skills, we have the chance to not only produce job-ready graduates but also transform the economy of the tri-state region.