Game Changer: Azer Bestavros’ Journey from Egypt to Cambridge to BU’s Computing Mastermind

“Technology is not creative; people are creative,” says the new associate provost for computing and data sciences.

By Art Jahnke, originally featured on The Brink.

In December 1977, when Azer Bestavros was a 16-year-old junior in a Lasallian French school in Alexandria, Egypt, he asked for career advice from a much-admired uncle who was living in the United States. Computers, said his uncle, then a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, look like they could be the next big thing. And so Bestavros started reading, and reading, everything about computers he could get his hands on. A couple of years later, his father returned from a trip to the UK with a gift for his son, who had just matriculated as a freshman in the University of Alexandria College of Engineering. It was an Apple II computer. “The rest,” says Bestavros, “is history.”

His uncle’s advice has taken Bestavros a long way, from Egypt to Harvard to Boston University, where in fall 2019 he was tapped to fill a critical new position: associate provost for computing and data sciences. In that role, he will lead the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences (CDS), shaping the University’s vision, strategy, curriculum, and faculty in arguably the hottest field in academia—and in the job market for college graduates. Bestavros will do much of that work in the newest, tallest, and most architecturally striking building on the Charles River Campus: the 19-story, 350,000-square-foot Center for Computing & Data Sciences. With construction beginning this spring, the building is expected to open in 2022.

For many academics, 30 years of research, teaching, and administration might suggest that it’s time to think about slowing down. For Bestavros, it’s time to welcome another challenge: his most important and demanding role to date.

“For nearly three decades,” says Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, “Azer has been a leading voice—both within BU and internationally—in the computing and data sciences. His contributions have been almost uniformly ahead of their time. And his indefatigable enthusiasm in advancing bold new technologies, in nurturing and championing the innovations of his colleagues, and in partnering BU with some of the world’s leading institutions, have positioned us very strongly in this rapidly evolving space. We are excited to see where he takes this new unit in the coming years.”

From Egypt to Cambridge

On this mid-December morning, Bestavros’ new and temporary office on the eighth floor of One Silber Way has two things: a computer and a whiteboard. That’s it. In the three weeks since his appointment as associate provost, he hasn’t had a moment to think about interior decoration, He’s been shuttling between Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., and New York City, a routine itinerary for someone whose 54-page curriculum vitae includes more than 160 invited lectures and colloquia on its “partial list.” In Silicon Valley and New York, he participated in BU alumni events. In Washington, as chair of a Committee of Visitors to the National Science Foundation, he delivered the findings of a six-month review of the NSF Directorate for Computer and Information Science & Engineering, which, shortly thereafter, invited him to join its Advisory Committee. Needless to say, he accepted.

At the moment, Bestavros, an exuberant and famously loquacious mathematician, is filling his office with memories of a childhood in Alexandria, his hybrid Arabic/French accent softened after spending more than half his life in the United States.

“Every day,” he says, “I would wake up to the sight of that calm, beautiful Mediterranean harbor. And I would think that it was the same harbor that Alexander the Great built over 2,000 years ago.” At school, he says, he spoke French. At home it was Arabic. “English,” he says, “was my third language.”

Portrait of a young boy Azer Bestavros.
Eight-year-old Bestavros, most likely admiring his latest creation from an erector set, a favorite pastime of his youth. Photo courtesy of Bestavros

Bestavros takes pride in Alexandria’s long and august history, even as that history included centuries of persecution by waves of cultural invaders who followed Alexander the Great, most recently Islamist ideologues and sympathizers, aimed at the ethnic minority his family belongs to. The Bestavroses are Copts, a proud Christian denomination that traces its roots to Ancient Egypt and comprises about 10 percent of Egypt’s population. (And yes, Bestavros also reads and writes Coptic, a liturgical language that is the final stage of the ancient Egyptian language.) Despite widespread anti-Copt prejudices, the Bestavros family enjoyed the privileged status accorded to Azer’s father, a Scottish-educated international maritime law scholar and a respected appellate court attorney.

When it was time to decide where to pursue higher education, Bestavros took the national examination that largely determined a student’s academic destination. With the third highest grade in the country, he had his pick, and he chose the University of Alexandria, where he studied computer science and engineering, graduated summa cum laude, and stayed on to earn a master’s degree in computer science.

Maher Elmasri, a family friend, remembers running into Bestavros when he was an undergraduate intern at an architectural firm in Alexandria. Elmasri, then a junior professor at MIT, was surprised to find the young computer science student writing programs that could use architectural drawings to estimate the amounts of various building materials needed for any project.

“You have to put that achievement in the context of early PCs,” Elmasri says. “It took imagination and real creative skills to make a program that could be used by everyone. I concluded that Azer was a genius, and now, having known him for nearly 40 years, I haven’t changed my mind.”

Bestavros’ aptitude also impressed admissions officers at graduate schools in the United States. He was offered scholarships to pursue a PhD at eight schools, including Boston University. This time, he chose Harvard, where in 1987 he aimed his impressive aptitude at robotics.

Life and love

Perpetually energetic, Bestavros had played basketball in French school in Alexandria, but finding time for the team sport at Harvard proved nearly impossible. He switched to squash, and what little free time he had was soon consumed by the mathematically strategic court game that had long been more popular in Egypt than in the United States. These days, he says, wear and tear on his knees keeps him off the court, but he takes great pride in following the world rankings of the Professional Squash Association, which place Egyptian athletes in the four top slots in the world, in both the men’s and women’s categories.

There was something else at Harvard that captured Bestavros’ affection, and it arrived with a late night call in October 1989. A graduate student who was having trouble with a new laser printer asked Bestavros, then a resident advisor who’d become known for his technological expertise, if he could possibly persuade the machine to do what it was supposed to do.

“I told her it was too cold to go out,” Bestavros recalls. “I told her that I will look at it tomorrow, and offered to print her paper on a laser printer in my department instead.”

When the two met the next day, Bestavros realized that the student was, by many standards, just as exotic as he was. And yet, at the same time she could hardly have been more different. Kathryn Welter was a fourth-generation Norwegian-American who hailed from the little town of Harrisburg, S.D., and she spoke German and Norwegian as well as Bestavros spoke French and English. She had come to Harvard from Eastman School of Music to pursue a PhD in musicology, with a focus on German composers of the 17th and 18th century.

Photo of a class of young boys at the College of Saint-Marc Alexandria in 1868; one of the young boys is Azer Bestavros.
Bestavros (second row, third from right) in the first grade at the College of Saint Marc in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo courtesy of Bestavros

Bestavros did eventually persuade the printer to do what it was supposed to, and the following day the grateful music scholar from the Midwest brought the mathematician from the Mideast a batch of warm homemade chocolate chip cookies. As with the Apple II computer, Bestavros says, “the rest is history.”

Today the two live in Wayland, Mass., where they have raised three children. Kathryn, now considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the German composer Johann Pachelbel, plays the organ in the local Lutheran church. Bestavros gardens, he says, with an extraordinary sense of fulfillment. “To me, gardening is therapeutic,” he says. “That may be because working with nature is so very different from working with computers. I truly feel that when I’m  gardening, time stands still.”

Crossing the Charles

In spring 1991, Bestavros was putting the finishing touches on his PhD thesis—a novel programming paradigm that he called Cleopatra, after the last pharaoh to rule Egypt before it succumbed to the Roman Empire, which allowed robots to perform industrial tasks by mimicking humans in real time. He was also a teaching fellow, which put him on the radar as a possible candidate for a newly opened position in Boston University’s seven-year-old eight-person computer science department.

Assaf Kfoury, the College of Arts & Sciences department chair who recruited Bestavros, was struck by the enthusiasm that the relentlessly inquisitive junior professor brought to every aspect of his job.

“Over and above his superlative qualities as a scientist,” says Kfoury, “Azer’s administrative skills are just off the charts. He is transparent, collegial, generous, unflappable, and enormously energetic.”

At BU, Bestavros could have continued his work on robotics, but the appeal of that field began to fade one day in 1993 when a graduate student named Carlos Cunha (GRS’97) walked into his office.

“Azer,” he asked. “Have you seen this thing called Mosaic?’”

Bestavros recalls looking at the primitive web browser that would later render the internet intelligible for millions of people and thinking that it wasn’t really about mainstream computer science. Research on that technology, he presumed, was unlikely to be noticed. At the same time, his insatiable curiosity compelled him to begin working with Cunha on the side. The two researchers focused their efforts on making the distribution of web content more efficient.

“I was wrong about the web,” Bestvros says. “It turned out that this side project opened up a whole new area for me and many others. Suddenly I became part of that exciting internet research community.”

The side project on web content distribution and delivery led Bestavros to a group of BU researchers who were trying to improve the scalability of the internet. One of those researchers, Mark Crovella, remembers his first meeting with Bestavros, in 1994, when Crovella interviewed for a faculty position.

“We had our usual half hour slot and he told me about his work and I told him about my work,” says Crovella, now a CAS computer science professor. “It was just what you would expect, nothing unusual. Then all of a sudden he started talking about the World Wide Web and there was all this energy and excitement in his voice. I remember being struck by how quickly he changed gears and just started going full steam ahead about the World Wide Web.”

Four years later, Bestavros’ and Crovella’s shared enthusiasm for the web led to a joint effort to commercialize software technology developed at BU that allowed web servers to double up as network routers. Once again, Crovella recalls, Bestavros’ extraordinary mental agility surprised even him. “We had to meet with companies who could incorporate our technology,” he says. “I remember we would go into a meeting completely cold and before you know it, Azer would shift gears and start spinning out all these creative connections about how things could work. His ability to be in a new situation and start to make leadership-type suggestions was really remarkable.”

It was also effective. Their company, Commonwealth Network Technologies, which was incubated at BU, was sold to a bigger fish, which sold it again the next year to an even bigger fish.

The big pivot

The millennial year 2000 was predicted to bring great change to computer science, and it was expected to be disturbing. Many IT professionals warned of a programming cataclysm called Y2K, which they feared would cripple digital systems as their calendars flipped from 1999 to 2000. The doomsayers had it wrong, and Y2K never happened—but in Bestavros’ construction of the history of computer science, something else did occur that proved far more meaningful.

“I see it this way,” Bestavros says. “Throughout the 20th century, computer scientists were inward-looking. They were working hard to make computers and networks better, faster, and cheaper. And they succeeded spectacularly. By the turn of the millennium, society’s accelerating embrace of the internet and mobile technologies opened the floodgates of data from every corner of the economy. This caused computer science to pivot. Computer scientists who had been inward-looking became outward-looking, targeting new problems that were less about building a better computer and more about leveraging data for a better society. Computer science started to become an increasingly social science.”

In fall 2000, Bestavros was appointed chair of the BU computer science department, charged with determining what kind of talent would best grow a department whose purview, he realized, might someday be almost everything.

He recalls an illuminating job interview for a senior faculty position, during which the candidate was asked which areas of computer science he thought were strategically important for growth. The candidate paused, then said something unexpected. “There is no such thing as a good area of computer science,” the candidate said. “There is only good computer science. If you’re a good computer scientist, you can pivot from one area to another.” Bestavros thought that answer was exactly right. Even today, he says, that principle guides much of his thinking.

It was in 2008 that Bestavros first glimpsed the potential for computation and data to profoundly alter the pursuit of knowledge. “Google, which was 10 years old, announced that it could beat health agencies in predicting outbreaks of the flu by analyzing the queries that the public posted to their search engines,” he says. “I thought that was amazing, and the really amazing part is not how they did it, which is straightforward, but rather the creative use of the data they have. The amazing part is the creativity. Technology is not creative; people are creative.”

Photo of Professor Azer Bestavros shaking hands with Governor Deval Patrick as Holyoke mayor, Alex Morse looks on at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, MA in April 2014.
Bestravros with Deval Patrick (Hon.’14), then governor of Massachusetts, and Alex Morse, mayor of Holyoke, Mass. (center), at a 2014 press conference announcing the state’s $3 million investment in the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Bestavros would soon have an opportunity to follow Google’s example, and match computer science with creative researchers from other disciplines. In fact, it would soon become his job. Three years after Google announced its effort to track disease, Bestavros was appointed founding director of the Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, BU’s first institutional effort to use computational and data-driven inquiry in creative ways to solve real-world problems.

Under Bestavros’ direction, the Hariri Institute anchored many high-profile initiatives, including the Digital Learning Initiative, the Cloud Computing Initiative, the AI Research Initiative, the Digital Health Initiative, the Cyber Security, Law and Society Alliance, the Red Hat Collaboratory, the Software & Application Innovation Lab (SAIL), and the BU Spark! initiative for student-driven computing innovation. By the time Bestavros stepped down as Hariri director in 2019, those initiatives secured over $110 million of extramural funding.

At roughly the same time that Google was trying to demonstrate the potential societal benefits of their technology, the interplay between the internet and civil society was taking an alarming turn. In 2010, Bestavros witnessed firsthand the danger of social media run amok when his homeland was rocked by a violent revolution that led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, the short reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the eventual ascension of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. As a participant in a BU CAS panel discussion of the role of social media in political uprisings that brought more than 100,000 demonstrators to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Bestavros found himself expounding on the risks of a new technology whose potential for social change was unguided and unrestrained.

“The common wisdom is that this revolution was the result of the rampant use of social networking technology to connect demonstrators to one another,” he says. “That’s true. But also true is the fact that social media was weaponized by using it to spread doctored pictures, what we now call fake news. At the time, while I recognized fake news for what it was, for most people in Tahrir Square, it was real.”

Today, Bestavros says, that kind of fake news has become an accepted hazard of electoral politics. “And that scares me,” he says. “The combination of information overload and fake news is dangerous. The speed of social media communication requires us to respond at time scales that are far shorter than what we as humans need in order to digest and rationally react to information. It’s unnatural. It’s faster than our ability to cope.”

The problem, he says, is not only about our capacity as individuals to consume information. It’s also about our capacity as a society to assimilate and regulate new technology. “Just think about how technology is affecting law and policy; it’s so fast that our lawmakers are many years behind, and they are getting more behind.”

A focus on the good

At the Hariri Institute, Bestavros could focus on ways that data would benefit society. And he did. One project under his guidance used a complex algorithm called secure multiparty computation to reveal, without disclosing any private or confidential information, gender-based inequity of salaries at Boston companies. Under his leadership, the Hariri Institute has been the driving force behind dozens of socially beneficial collaborations involving issues ranging from AI to cloud systems.

And during this time, Bestavros never stopped teaching.

Esteemed by students for his engaging teaching style and his use of memorable analogies, he is known for his signature CS-350 Fundamentals of Computing Systems course, which he developed and taught for over 25 years. CS-350 covers the fundamental concepts that undergird the design of all types of computing systems, and yet are immune to technological churn. He is also credited with several other curricular contributions, most notably CS-109 The Art and Science of Quantitative Reasoning, a course that introduces nonmajors to quantitative and computational thinking. In 2017, he was awarded a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professorship, the highest honor bestowed by the University on senior faculty involved in research, scholarship, and teaching.

Now, as associate provost for computing and data sciences, Bestavros carries the mission he pursued at the Hariri Institute to a far larger stage, one whose importance for the University can be seen and heard daily, in the beginning construction on Commonwealth Avenue of the Center for Computing & Data Sciences, future home to much of the computing and data sciences faculty.

A rendering of BU's Center for Computing & Data Sciences as seen from Comm Ave.
Architects’ rendering of the new 19-story, 350,000-square-foot Center for Computing & Data Sciences. Image courtesy of KPMB Architects

“That new building will be a physical embodiment of the collaborative nature of CDS,” he says. “The reason that it’s built at the heart of the Charles River Campus is because computing plays a central role in academia. It’s the connecting tissue for many interdisciplinary pursuits.”

From a purely practical perspective, data science can be an express train to a promising career. In 2019, for the fourth time in as many years, job search site Glassdoor named “data scientist” the best job in America, based on salary, overall job satisfaction, and the number of available jobs—usually more than 5,000 on the site, and with a median base salary over $100,000.

Those jobs exist today largely because of what Bestavros sees as the historic pivot of computer science at the start of this millennium. In his mind, the great pivot changed much more than the course of computer science as a discipline. It changed the way knowledge is pursued in virtually every discipline, and it set the stage for what he sees as a new data-driven age of enlightenment.

In his new role, Bestavros will extend the boundaries of the data-driven contributions made by faculty and students at Boston University. The new CDS faculty will be the engine that generates many of those contributions, and it will be different from the faculties of BU’s 17 other schools and colleges. CDS will be multidisciplinary; it will include people who are solely appointed to computing and data sciences, as well as some with joint appointments in other schools and colleges across the University. It will be defined, he says, “not only by what scholarship is pursued, but by how that scholarship is pursued—by computing and data sciences ways of thinking and doing, which is increasingly the universal language spoken across disciplines.”

Naturally, Bestavros greets the challenges ahead with the intellectual exuberance that he is famous for across the University. He is looking forward to, well, everything. And he is grateful, he says, that he is no longer making things smaller, faster, and cheaper. “I have to understand the big problems now,” he says. “I didn’t have to do that when my research was inward-looking. A lot of the satisfaction I get today comes from learning about, and working on, these big problems.”

Azer Bestavros is delighted to be exactly where he is. When he looks back on his journey, he is convinced that the advice his uncle gave him long ago could not have taken him anyplace else.

“It’s what happens when a technology becomes so intertwined with our lives,” he says. “It has to become humanistic. It’s not like computer scientists decided to become social scientists. It is our destiny.”