Friday, September 24, 2010

Alberto Segre knows how to pack a dishwasher.

"You want to pack the largest number of dishes in, so you would never put a larger bowl in front of a smaller bowl," he said, his thin frame glasses gently resting on his blue jeans. "I am not adverse to packing and repacking the dishwasher."

To the new computer-science chairman, life is like a computer program, and he is focused on optimizing the solution.

Segre arrived at the University of Iowa in 1994, and he has been a faculty member of the computer-science department since 2003.

He took over control of the department from the old head, Jim Cremer, who stepped down after eight years.

"It is not like it was my turn or anything," Segre said. "But I am rather glad to do it."

The walls of his new office are still bare. Two gray file cabinets are haphazardly arranged in the corner, shims pushed under their bases in order to keep them level on the slanted floor.

"Well, the semester intervened, other things happened," he said, commenting on the bare drawers of his desk.

Segre's new duties include the general management of the department as well as planning for the future direction.

"He is, compared to me, much more of a people person," Cremer said. "He is really good at making connections around campus."

Segre is also good at breaking the ice.

Lisa Segre, his wife of 23 years, was set up with him at a dinner party, where they were the only two single people. But after the party, he never called.

"He said he was going to call me, and he didn't call me," she said. "I remember thinking, What is taking this guy so long to call me?"

What had stalled him was not his lack of interest but that he actually had a girlfriend.

"I didn't know if she wanted me to call; I had no idea if I had made a good impression or not," Alberto Segre said, gesturing for emphasis.

He decided to call, and the pair began dating. But later on, Lisa Segre, still curious about what caused the delay, inquired.

"I had to pop the stack," Segre said.

"Popping the stack" is a computing term referring to removing the top piece of information — or, in his case, his then-girlfriend — to gain access to the next item in the list, or Lisa Segre.

"I don't know if I made a very good impression at the time with the computing joke," Segre said.

But Segre's love for computing has been fully embraced by his wife, who gave him an Albert Einstein action figure, still wrapped in its packaging, as a gift.

While computing euphemisms squeeze their way into his daily life, Segre's family trumps anything technical.

"I am very proud of my kids," he said, family pictures lying on an metal bookshelf next to computer cables and a broken power supply.

Segre is also very close with his extended family, and he makes trips back to Italy to visit them.

"I go back a lot. My grandma died when she was 106, in 2006," he said. "So we try to go back to see them."

And while Segre has roots in a foreign country, his focus is on Iowa and the growth of computer science.

"It is intrinsically fun," he said. "There is a beauty to it."