Koutris brings theoretical approach to databases

Assistant professor Paris Koutris

Paris Koutris, a new assistant professor in UW-Madison’s Department of Computer Sciences, was drawn to the field since it’s a little like sleuthing.  “You must not only solve the problem, but find the problem,” he says.  “My interest is in looking at real-world problems and then abstracting more theoretical problems or frameworks behind them and investigating that.”

Koutris arrived in Madison in fall 2015 from another prestigious UW—the University of Washington, where he earned his PhD.  Originally, though, he’s from Athens, Greece, where his parents are doctors.

Koutris, however, fell in love with math rather than medicine as a child.  In high school, he discovered programming and became hooked.  Now, he focuses on the intersection between databases and theory, two major subfields in computer science, and, more specifically, the theoretical problems behind data management.

With data piling up at an almost unthinkable rate—it’s said that collected data is doubling every two years—Koutris is in a fertile research area.  One of the avenues he’s pursuing currently is measuring the information behind data.

As he explains, when data is given out in response to a query, “We want to quantify how much information you’re giving.  Why is that useful?  Because you may need to put a price on data or keep track of how much privacy is being given away.”

His other main research direction explores how to scale up various data-management tasks across hundreds or even thousands of machines.  Says Koutris, “I’m looking at this from a theoretical perspective.  I’m trying to understand how much we can leverage parallelism [breaking up a big task into many smaller, concurrent tasks across many machines] to speed up computation in query processing and other related tasks.”

Koutris’ large-scale solutions are applicable to any kind of data, such as consumer or weather data.  He was attracted to Madison in part because of the strength of the database research group here, the first of its kind in the nation.  Emeritus faculty like David DeWitt and Jeff Naughton are among the giants in the field.

“Definitely, the database group’s reputation played into my decision to come here.  Also, the group is diverse in terms of research interests,” he says, with Professor Jignesh Patel focusing on systems and Professor AnHai Doan concentrating on the applications side and data integration.  Koutris’ theoretical bent rounds out the group.

Although he completed internships at Facebook and Microsoft Research during his graduate-school days, Koutris prefers academia.  “I like teaching, and I like the academic freedom to pursue almost any problem in computer science.”

When he’s not busy teaching or researching, Koutris enjoys hiking, traveling and getting to know his new city.

He enjoys introducing students to fundamental concepts within CS that will serve them well throughout their entire careers and enable them to adapt in a rapidly changing environment.  And, of course, the intellectual challenges that drew him to CS still excite him:  “When you come up with a very elegant solution, it’s so rewarding.”


[Photo credit:  Sarah Morton, UW College of Letters & Science]