Have you met Joerg Sander?

On July 1, Joerg Sander will step into his new role as interim chair in the Department of Computing Science.

Katie Willis - 28 June 2021

Beginning on July 1, 2021, Joerg Sander will become the interim chair in the Department of Computing Science. Sander has been a faculty member in the department for 20 years and is an expert in knowledge discovery in databases, spatial data mining, spatio-temporal indexing, and bioinformatics.

Hear from Sander on his background in philosophy—and how learning the fundamentals of computing science is just like learning to drive. 

Tell us about the focus of your research program.

My research started out in the area of databases, and my current focus is now on unsupervised machine learning algorithms, particularly density-based clustering, outlier detection, and spatial data mining. This includes both the development of new methods for these tasks and development of methods that make such methods faster in large data sets.

What is your favourite course to teach?

My favourite course to teach is our first-year introduction to the foundations of computing science. Helping beginners to learn computational thinking and getting them past the point where they struggle with the details of a programming language has been a very rewarding experience.

The challenge in learning computational thinking is analogous to the challenge when learning how to drive. Initially you struggle mostly with operating the car, which corresponds to learning how to use the elements of a programming language. Once you get past this, you can’t even remember what was so difficult about shifting gears or what was difficult about a ‘while-statement’. Then you can focus on and enjoy the ride.

What is the biggest opportunity that you see for the Department of Computing Science in the next year?

The biggest opportunity for the department for the next year is to capitalize on our experience with online teaching during the pandemic, and not let these insights fade away. I believe there is a great potential (and need) to build on what we have learned to improve future course design and delivery.

What is your first memory at the U of A?

My first memory at the U of A is about my interview here. I remember the extremely welcoming and exciting atmosphere in the department and the engaging conversations with the database group members. I remember that I made my decision to come to the U of A during my conversation with Mario Nascimento (who is coincidentally our current outgoing chair) while he drove me to the airport after the interview—a decision that I have not regretted.

What’s something that people might be surprised to learn about you?

The fact that I did get the equivalent of a master’s degree in philosophy and logic. I was on my way to a PhD in the area of philosophy of science before changing course and starting over with computing science.

Where is your favourite place on campus?

After not being able to come to campus for so long, probably any place on campus is going to be my favourite place. But, if I have to be specific, my favourite spot may be on the south end of Pembina Hall, across from SUB, where there are a couple of tables with benches under some trees, and where I have enjoyed many cups of coffee.

If you were enrolling in one course, program or degree right now, what would it be?

To satisfy my personal interests in fundamental questions that led me to start my academic studies with philosophy: physics.

What’s something your coworkers don’t know about you?

I regularly bake European style breads at home (starting long before bread baking became “a thing” during the pandemic). I have also—much to my wife’s dismay—rigged up a barbecue to reach the temperatures of a wood-fired oven, so I am able to properly bake Neapolitan-style pizza.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

I am not sure I would bother giving my 18-year-old-self any advice; I am pretty sure that I would not listen to it. Maybe I could try this: when Google first comes along and you think about whether to buy stocks or not—do it!