News - Atlanta brain-drain

Options too few for cutting-edge tech workers

I’m lucky. A couple years back, I thought I’d go to grad school at Georgia Tech to learn more about computers. Now it’s the final year of my degree, and when I think about life after school — yes, I’m very lucky.
Options, all good ones, are everywhere. The skills that came with my education are highly portable, evidenced by the last two summers spent in New England: one at MIT, the other at Yale.
So where do I go to pursue my career? Over to sunny California. Back to New England. Maybe down to Florida or over to Texas. There’s a friend who does computational biology in Brazil, and I’ve heard the beaches are incredible. For that matter, why not Australia? I’d also like to think I could just stay in Atlanta.
My interests lie in making the interfaces to serve computational biologists, the people whose work is associated with all things “genome.” I also write, and regularly contribute technology articles to a short list of print and online publications.
The problem with Atlanta is that, as a second-tier technology research center - i.e., not the D.C.-Boston corridor or San Francisco Bay area — its location diminishes the opportunity for me to become either a world-class technology writer, or a world-class computational biology interface designer, let alone do both.
There’s no finger to point for this. My professors are world-class. And they — along with everyone else in the technology world — know it, because their best and brightest students go toe-to-toe with all the other b-and-b’s in Cambridge, northern New Jersey, and Silicon Valley. A classic Catch-22, maintaining the region’s world class reputation means sending the highest achievers packing.
Some proof of the brain drain: one tenure-track junior faculty member out of the 10 in Tech’s College of Computing, Beth Mynatt, actually earned her Ph.D. at Tech, returning after starting her career at the very well-known Xerox PARC corporate research lab in Palo Alto. Because of her work, and the work of a collection of other like-minded intellectual heavyweights at Tech (from universities like MIT, Michigan and others), it has become a recognized hub for research into ubiquitous computing, the “computers everywhere” future most can only imagine.
Cultivating a single center of excellence does not necessarily signal a trend toward across-the-board technology leadership. While Mynatt came back home to the roost, others have been quick to leave. Recently, James O’Brien took his newly minted Tech Ph.D. and A-list computer animation credentials to a coveted faculty post at the University of California-Berkeley. Jessica Hodgins, O’Brien’s advisor and head of Tech’s highly respected Animation group, is also headed out — to Carnegie-Mellon.
Even with the emerging presence of ambitious and talented digital animation groups in Atlanta at Giant Studios and Cartoon Network, the computer animation branch of excellence may just have died on the vine, at least at Georgia Tech.
Achieving and sustaining the intellectual critical mass at technology’s leading edge is tricky. So often it depends on the presence or absence of a charismatic thought leader. James Foley, head of the seemingly always newsworthy Yamacraw Project, is one. Young faculty like Irfan Essa, in Tech’s Future Computing Environments group with Mynatt, is another, and many examples exist in all sorts of disciplines. It’s entirely possible that their collective magnetism will draw the necessary talent to my areas of interest.
It’s perhaps equally likely that it won’t, and the essential impulse for me to log time in one of the meccas of technology isn’t going away.
What of the areas I’d most like to see thrive, technology journalism and computational biology? There are signs of both picking up here in Atlanta. I have seen new tech business magazines and in them read about new biotech initiatives, but in both instances they seem more like bandwagon-jumping than a genuine desire for leadership.
And in June 2001, where will I be? Honestly, probably not in Georgia, though I am sure a percentage of my classmates will remain. What could the region do to get me to stay? Show signs that the gutsiest, most creative, most technically capable thought leaders have a place they can thrive. I’d like to see Atlanta affirmed as a place that values their abilities so strongly that no one could imagine ever wanting to leave.

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