Christopher Scaffidi was in second grade when he figured out that Oregon is where he wanted to live. “I decided I liked the woods, so I studied where the woods were and I found they were in Oregon and Maine,” he says. He subsequently ruled out Maine when he found out (later in elementary school) that Maine has a ton of snow, and he had his fill of that growing up in Wisconsin.
Although Scaffidi knew from a young age where he wanted to live, his choice of career was less clear. While pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at Princeton, he realized that there were not many jobs for physicists. “I found I enjoyed programming as much as I enjoyed doing physics. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I do something I love that could also get me a job?’” he says.
Although his undergraduate degree was in math and physics, Scaffidi maintained an interest in programming that started in middle school and developed when he was an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin. By chance, he became involved in the very early days of the web, when some particle physicists he was working for wanted to explore data sharing over the web (from the CERN laboratory in Europe). He soon realized the potential of presenting information in colorful and interactive ways on the web and became a web application developer after leaving Princeton.
“What satisfies me most is making useful things that are also fun to use. It took me a while to figure that out about myself,” he says.
He continues to be excited about the possibilities with new technology: “Computers are continually gaining new capabilities, whether for computation, data acquisition, and data visualization. But a challenge is ensuring that everybody has the means to take advantage of these interesting new capabilities, instead of making it so hard that only a select group would be able to take advantage of them.”
Indeed, that is the focus of his research. More specifically, he wants to make the chore of programming easier for people by creating tools that will help them learn from, and build upon, each other’s programs. He and his students collaborate with companies to test their research in different contexts, such as a Microsoft Research scripting tool for smartphones, an IBM tool for automating web browsing tasks, and a National Instruments program used by scientists and engineers to acquire and analyze data from hardware.
Within his teaching, he likes to promote self-reliance in his students so they are not dependent on someone else for opportunities. He seeks to train them to be able to create their own job by either starting their own business or by being a creative force within an existing business.
“I want our students to be fountains of ideas that spill over into lots of people’s lives, creating opportunity for everyone,” he says.
—By Rachel Robertson