After 43 years, Roy Campbell retires, but legacy of innovation, leadership will remain
Sit down for a conversation with Roy Campbell in his third-floor office, and he talks about the ubiquity of the technology all around him in a matter-of-fact, off-handed way: the YouTube videos that his students stream on their phones, the cloud where those videos and much more is stored.
Now, after 43 years at the University of Illinois, Campbell is retiring, leaving a legacy of innovation and leadership, both with Illinois CS and across the computational world. He takes with him an enduring appreciation of the university and what it offers.
“From my point of view, universities provide all these opportunities to people who wouldn’t otherwise get them. And I think that’s really important,” he said. “I’m especially proud when I’ve got students who come from humble backgrounds, international or here, and make out – who can go to the West Coast and become millionaires, right? It’s possible!”
Campbell’s roles at Illinois – teacher, researcher, administrator, and builder of bridges beyond the department -- is deeply appreciated by those who work with him. As much as anything, Professor and Fulton Watson Copp Chair Emeritus Michael T. Heath said, Campbell ought to be admired for taking on more and more work over time.
“If anything he got more and more active as time went on,” said Heath, who was interim head of the department from 2007-2010. “Roy knows this university backwards and forwards probably better than anybody in the last 20 or 40 years – how to get things done, who to see, what’s the best strategy to get things through the Faculty Senate.”
Campbell joined Illinois Computer Science after earning his master’s degree and PhD in Computer Science from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1972 and 1976, respectively.
Campbell grew up on the outskirts of London in a lower-middle class family, he said. His father died when he was an infant and his mother ran the family’s wholesale-cloth business.
“On my father’s side, if you go back a generation or so they were watermen on the Thames, water taxis, essentially,” he said. “We were middle class and working our way through and trying to do things. So nothing was easy. It wasn’t a case of walking into Cambridge or having a lot of money.”
The University of Newcastle, he said, offered a chance at more, something similar to what he said he and his wife, Ann Campbell (Master of Urban Planning, ’79), found in the University of Illinois’ Land Grant mission.
“I feel like I was given opportunities to do things that my ancestors couldn’t do. And so coming here, I really fit in very well, with what I felt about universities and about the benefits of education and the opportunities you could get by doing this,” Roy Campbell said.
Campbell found many of those opportunities in the chance to pursue groundbreaking research.
His early research included innovations such as the Vosiac real-time internet video distribution system that allowed some of the earliest streaming video for the Web, ubiquitous computing that foreshadowed and then helped enable the Internet of Things, and object-oriented parallel processing operating systems.
And that research hasn’t stopped evolving, continuing a pattern that saw Campbell and his collaborators – including many students who have gone on to their own influential careers – move from subject area to subject area, anticipating where technology might be headed next. That includes his current focus on cloud computing, machine learning, and health data analytics.
Their work contributed to LinkedIn’s Ambry and Samza systems and Microsoft’s Steel Edge Computing and Free Flow Container networking projects, as well as the development with the National Institutes of Health and others of a vectorized machine learning approach to studying data sets associated with neurological diseases. Collaboration with the NIH, with his PhD student Faraz Faghri, ultimately identified the importance of the KIF5A gene in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
So far, 57 of Campbell’s students have earned PhDs, and he advised 167 students who have gotten master’s degrees.
His students include See-Moog Tan (PhD ‘99, MS ’91) and Zhigang Chen (PhD ’97), who with Campbell developed Vosaic, which allowed video from the Mars Pathfinder to be streamed by NASA. The technology was eventually turned into a startup of the same name. Tan is now the senior manager for Technical Program Management at Amazon and Chen co-founded the mobile video platform Vuclip.
Also among Campbell’s graduates were Manuel Roman (PhD ’03), who held high-level positions at Yahoo!, was Essential’s Head of Engineering, and is now a software engineer at Apple. And Campbell also points to Thomas Skibo (MS CS ’92), who was a software engineer at Juniper Networks when it was a startup in the late 1990s before leaving the field to, at least for a time, take on an entirely different pursuit.
“I thought it was fabulous when he retired and went off surfing every day,” Campbell said with delight. “There are stories associated with quite a lot of these guys.”
Campbell enthusiasm for mentoring students continues, and he supports them and brags about their accomplishments with equal enthusiasm. A number of them, like Shadhi Noghabi (PhD ’18 and now a researcher at Microsoft Research) contributed to the textbook he co-authored last year, “Assured Cloud Computing.” Campbell called her “a leader and an independent self-starter.”
Another of those younger students, Imani Palmer (PhD ’18), said she was inspired by Campbell.
“Professor Campbell is a great encouragement to all of his graduate students,” said Palmer. who is now a vice president and data scientist with Bank of America's Global Information Security team in Chicago. “He is a constant reminder of scholarly pursuit and a positive attitude.”
Campbell also found time, energy, and interest to serve outside the classroom and lab.
The list of positions he held over the years includes director of Graduate Admissions and Advancement for Computer Science from 2008 to 2013, director of the Assured Cloud Computing University Center of Excellence from 2011 to 2017, director of the Center for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education and Research since 1999, chair of the University Senate Executive Committee from 2013 to 2015, and, since 2016, associate dean for Information Technology of the College of Engineering.
Heath discovered shortly after taking on the interim head role that he needed a new graduate admissions director. After finding no takers among those he thought might have the time, he decided to approach someone he initially thought was just too busy: Campbell.
“Roy was not just happy to help, but eager to help -- he plunged into it with his usual enthusiasm and did a terrific job,” Heath said. “He’s energetic, enthusiastic, and seemingly overcommitted, but can always somehow find time to do more.”
Now Campbell plans to, among other things, continue working with his remaining students. But he says he will miss being involved in a larger way in the life of the university, and the otherwise unlikely connections with people.
Campbell points to Donald Michie, a Scottish computer scientists who had worked with Alan Turing during World War II and later founded The Turing Institute, an artificial intelligence lab in Scotland that closed in the 1990s. Michie for a time had an affiliation with Illinois Computer Science, and Campbell met and worked with him.
“The place is big enough, there’s lots of really good people here and you meet them,” Campbell said. “That would be like Donald Michie -- to think that he would be around here is sort of strange, but you get that.”