3 Fragen an Prof. Dan Olteanu

Dan Olteanu joined our Faculty May 1st 2020. He is a full professor for Big Data Science and the head of the DAST (Data Systems and Theory) group at the Department of Informatics. In a short Interview he answers what he wants to achieve in research and teaching.

What do you focus on in your research? 

I am a computer scientist focusing on efficient data processing. Typical questions I address in my research include: How many computation steps does one need to solve a problem? Is there a simple and intuitive algorithm for it? Does this algorithm work well on real-world data or only on paper?

I have asked such questions for a variety of problems of practical relevance or just out of academic curiosity, including: quickly searching needles in a haystack before the cows start feeding; learning to predict future sales at my daughter's favourite clothes shops based on what she and her sizeable network of friends bought previously; keeping track of the number of «cliques» of friends on fast-evolving social media; or teaching squirrels to collect all the right nuts in disciplined, top-down left-to-right traversals of trees.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of these questions and solutions turned out to be relevant to challenges faced by start-up software companies that I enjoyed working with. 

What would you like to convey to your students?

I enjoy interminable discussions dissecting questions coming out of lectures and research. This can become exhausting, unless the interlocutors share a healthy dose of motivation and stamina. My main goals are to regularly instil that dose in my students and help them articulate their ideas, so that they can enjoy interminable discussions, too. I hope to teach them principles of problem solving that are valid beyond computer science. 

What were the decisive factors for you to join the University of Zurich? 

The University of Zurich fulfils my two top desiderata for a leading learning and research institution: (1) a high-quality and very affordable learning environment as well as (2) access to quantitatively and qualitatively healthy research funding. These desiderata, as common sense as they may sound, are the exception rather than the norm. The Department of Informatics at the University of Zurich has an excellent research throughput, it is relatively small yet very active. The cherry on top of the cake is that Zurich is a great place to live and located in the heart of Europe. 
I am looking forward to expanding my professional and personal life.