Jelena & Ilias Diakonikolas: Faculty couples and how they balance personal & professional bliss

Ilias and Jelena in a sunny park.
Ilias and Jelena Diakonikolas

Mutual respect — and a deeply shared love of computer science research — are two of the things that connect Jelena and Ilias Diakonikolas. He is the Sheldon B. Lubar Professor of Computer Sciences, and she is an assistant professor in the same department.

He calls her the most determined and capable person he has ever met. She appreciates his ability to see the big picture.

The pair met at Princeton University in 2013, at the 60th birthday party of Ilias’ PhD advisor and Jelena’s informal mentor. Jelena says their initial meeting produced “obvious sparkles,” but it took a few months before the couple began dating, in part because he was a professor at the time, and she was still a PhD student.

Like many couples, the Diakonikolases battled long-distance issues: initially, Ilias was teaching in Scotland while Jelena was working on a PhD at Columbia University in New York. After finally managing to land in the same state while visiting the Simons Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, a colleague steered them toward applying for a pair of open positions at UW–Madison.

“We were actually concerned initially with what it would be like to be in the same department,” says Jelena. “What if we disagree about things in the faculty meetings? But it has been great. It is very convenient. We are on the same floor. We also are in different areas of computer science but are close enough.”

Recently, the Diakonikolases began collaborating on research together, creating another bond between them. He studies algorithms and machine learning; she studies large-scale optimization. They have been married for eight years and spend most of their non-academic time chasing after their 3-year-old daughter.

“As researchers, both of us are very deeply committed to our work and very ambitious. So, research is a very big part of our lives,” says Ilias.

Read about other L&S faculty love stories here.