Alumnus spotlight: Patrick Sullivan
Alumnus-turned-instructor shares his story about how a student can become the teacher.
By Tayler Butters
Patrick Sullivan is a Virginia Tech alumnus and newly-hired full-time instructor of computer science. He grew up in Rolla, Missouri, and received his B.S. in computer science from Missouri University of Science and Technology before getting his M.S. in computer science at Tech.
This semester, Sullivan is teaching Intermediate Programming in Python (CS 2064) and Introduction to Problem Solving in Computer Science (CS 2104).
Recently, he shared stories about his path to becoming an instructor, his research, and his advice for students.
Tell me about your path to becoming a professor. What drew you to teaching, and why is it important?
PS: I was lucky enough to find my passion for computer science when I was just about to start college. And the professors had a wide variety of methods and perspectives to introduce these new topics to me -- through storytelling, investigations, curiosity, puzzles, and challenges to push my own limits. I kept this interest going all the way into graduate school and then found out that teaching is an amazing way to share my passion with others. In my view, there's nothing more thrilling than helping others be empowered with a new idea.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
PS: Several things actually. There are some fun lectures I've crafted where I tell the real stories of intricate computing systems and how their design impacts our lives. Meeting newer students who have so much curiosity or older students who bring in deep questions gives me a great sense of nostalgia. I also love when students come to me with a tough problem that I don't understand immediately, and then I can guide them on how to study the inner workings of their programs and projects.
Being a Virginia Tech alumnus means that I have a responsibility to empower others using the knowledge that I gained here. While I do have an intense passion for computer science itself, I always viewed it through the lens of how I can use it to help people. A land-grant university like Tech has a unique purpose to consider education through this same perspective. So it makes sense that a large part of the alumni kept the sacred value of service alive beyond the classroom. That kind of shared value between myself and others is something I treasure.
What research are you currently working on, and why are you passionate about it?
PS: Digital education is my most significant research interest of the past several years. It is a great source of new and tested ideas that I can apply to my own classrooms. I also wish to support and make an impact on others who are becoming educators, passing along the experiences I have earned and the knowledge I gained from my own great teachers and professors. Specifically, I am involved with the software development of the open-source courseware called "OpenDSA" and the integration of mutation testing into our computer science curriculum.
What is something you would like students to know?
PS: Everyone can be empowered by understanding the incredible computing tools we have around us. The seeds that started computer science took only a few decades to become a defining feature of the current digital revolution. Today, it is impossible to learn everything within computer science. But a core takeaway from a good college education is finding your ability to understand and dismantle problems that appear insurmountable at first glance. Being able to recognize your own growth and learning is essential to thrive in your life and to help others along the way.
What are some of your fondest memories of being in the department?
PS: I was part of a big team of teaching assistants to help the students of CS 1114, a very large class at the university. Our office hours could become packed with students seeking help on their software projects whenever a deadline was looming. But I found this to be thrilling: people coming to me for help and guidance on problems that I found interesting. Sometimes those problems were even perplexing to me and took me a bit to understand what happened. But discussing with each student often brought up deeper questions and curiosity and astonishment. I stayed quite a bit later than I was scheduled on one particular day because of the project deadline, and there were messages on the class forum from several students the next day. It included "These TAs are gems, and we don't deserve them. Bless the TAs"
I also have very fond memories of a friend that I made here at Virginia Tech. When I made my first visit here to decide on being a graduate student in computer science, I met Taylor Rydahl in the same situation. It was a fun and overwhelming weekend of information, expectations, worries, and wonder for both of us. I remember at the end of the visiting weekend, we both needed time to think our decision over some more, so our goodbye and hug at the airport was tough. After I accepted going to Virginia Tech, I messaged him quickly and found out he was going too! As soon as we both moved to Blacksburg, we met up weekly for some cheap BBQ sandwiches and vented about how it felt simultaneously good and strange to be here. We did have one class together and partnered together on the final project, and he wisely showed me the way out of a hole I was digging (figuratively). Taylor was a big reason why my first years here at Virginia Tech were heartening, and so it shocked me deeply when I found out he passed away in our second year.
There are many other people and organizations at and around Virginia Tech that have given me wonderful memories. I traveled to Switzerland for 10 days to learn about the higher education systems there and encounter ideas that would impact how I teach. Max, Erin, Ryan, and Emma introduced me to the adventures within Dungeons and Dragons. I've played my keyboard and drum set with quite a few more talented musicians. I've also had several cool volunteering opportunities to teach kids: sometimes by programming robots, and other times by holding a scary-looking but harmless vinegaroon.