Meet Martin Farach-Colton, the new chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Arriving with deep domain expertise; a history of entrepreneurship; and a surprising avocation


Computer Science and Engineering constitutes the largest academic department at NYU Tandon, with hundreds of new undergraduate and graduate students joining each year, and dozens of dedicated faculty members whose expertise spans such areas as cybersecurity, big data management, and AI. Chairing a department of that size and complexity is a tall order, but Martin Farach-Colton, who held a distinguished professorship at Rutgers University before coming to Brooklyn, is supremely ready to take on the challenge.

Farach-Colton’s own areas of expertise include big data algorithmics, storage systems, data structures, and streaming algorithms. He was the winner of the inaugural Simon Imre Test of Time Award at the 2012 Latin American Symposium on Theoretical Informatics, for a paper detailing a simple algorithm for the Least Common Ancestor problem, and his most recent peer-reviewed works involve addressing the shortcomings of translation lookaside buffers (TLBs), a type of memory cache — research that won him a distinguished paper award at the ACM International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems (ASPLOS); giving the fastest key-value store for persistent memory systems, which is a new type of RAM; and devising a hash table that simultaneously offers the strongest known guarantees on a large number of core properties; among other projects. 

His CV, however, gives only glimpses of just how fascinating his life and career have been. He held a post, for example, as a senior research scientist at Google from 2000 to 2002 and is thus one of a relatively small group of people with first-hand knowledge of what it was like to work at the tech giant during its heady, early days, when it occupied just a single building, rather than an entire waterfront campus in New York City. And considering the failure rate of many startups, he is also among a select group of successful founders: his data-storage company, TokuTek, which he launched in 2006, made it possible for a new class of applications to handle unprecedented amounts of incoming data and was acquired in 2015.

Even his educational journey has been somewhat unusual: he received bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and mathematics — the latter just for fun, he says — from the University of  South Carolina in 1984, and then, keeping a promise he had made to himself at about the age of 14, he earned an M.D. at Johns Hopkins. After he did so, however, he found that he greatly missed mathematics and decided to study computer science at the University of Maryland, where he ultimately earned a Ph.D. in 1991.

Farach-Colton — whose many honors include fellowships from the ACM, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, IEEE, and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, each of which has recognized his contributions to data structures and storage systems — also has the distinction of being an elected member of Argentina’s Academia Nacional de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales (National Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences), a laurel important to him because of his Argentinean lineage. (He was, however, actually born in Canada, during a period when his father, Horacio, was conducting post-doctoral research at the University of Toronto, and moved to the U.S. at age three, after Horacio became a professor of physics at the University of South Carolina). 

Farach-Colton has one other important connection to South America. He is a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, a martial art that emphasizes grappling and leverage to subdue an opponent, rather than kicks or strikes, and has been a medalist in international competition. (He is a father of twins, so if ever any child could accurately say, “My dad can beat up your dad,” it’s probably those two.) 

In his role as chair, Farach-Colton, who will also hold the title of Leonard J. Shustek Professor of Computer Science, plans to expand and diversify the department even further, and his appointment caps what has already been an incredible period of growth for Tandon. Earlier this year we welcomed two other new department chairs — Katsuo Kurabayashi of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Nizar Touzi of the Department of Finance and Risk Engineering — as well as a new vice dean for research, Linda Ng Boyle

It seems fair to say that he’s just joined his latest notable group.