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Pete Santago ('73, '81)

Alumnus Pete Santago

Pete Santago
Professor of Computer Science, Wake Forest University
Class of ’73 and ’81

After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1973 with a bachelor’s in computer science, I took a position as a COBOL and database programmer with Raytheon in Waltham, Mass. My career was short-lived there as I decided to start my own business timeshare company in Christiansburg, Virginia. After four years, I sold my interest in the business and returned to Virginia Tech to work on my master’s. During this time, I also had a full-time job for the Satellite Communications Group in the Department of Electrical Engineering,  working on real-time control and data analysis. I completed my master’s degree in 1981 and went on to earn my Ph.D. in electrical engineering at North Carolina State University. 

My research entailed image processing, while my studies included computer architecture and a minor in mathematics. After graduation, I took a position at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine of Wake Forest University, where I founded and chaired the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the associate Ph.D. program during his 24-year tenure. I also co-founded the Virginia Tech Wake Forest  School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. In 2011, I left the medical school and took the position as chair of the Department of Computer Science at Wake Forest. I recently stepped down as chair in 2020 and currently serve as a professor in the department.

How did the department equip you for the ‘real world’...

This is such a good question, yet not simple to answer. A few facts first, however, that give some context to my Virginia Tech computer science education. I spent my first two years at the Air Force Academy before transferring to Virginia Tech, so my undergraduate time was influenced by both institutions. I started when computers were new as was the Department of Computer Science. The computer world was changing dramatically and quickly. What I took from computer science that was most valuable was my ability to actually design an algorithm and write a program (I had a class in COBOL, so this was great for my first job). As a student, I found work as a programmer for a few departments, and that experience greatly honed my programming skills. I also came away with my love of all things computer, which my time at Virginia Tech nurtured.

While earning my master’s degree, I also worked for the Satellite Communications Group in the   Department of Electrical Engineering at Virginia Tech. This deepened my understanding of computers and their application in real-time control. This was also the beginning of my desire for a deeper education and to take ownership for my code and systems. I am not sure it is the real world, but this did much for me a few years later when I ended up at North Carolina State in the electrical engineering graduate program. I was well prepared in many ways thanks to my very rich Virginia Tech experience.

Being a Virginia Tech alumnus means...

Being one of a long line of Hokies who can claim such an excellent university as his own. I am not sure this really hit me until I served on the Department of Electrical Engineering Advisory Board. Being around all of those committed and proud Hokies truly cemented my connection to Virginia Tech. Later, as one of the founders of the Virginia Tech - Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, I was so proud to have this continued relationship to show my Wake Forest colleagues the excellence of Virginia Tech.

My fondest memory from my time in the department is...

During my undergraduate time, or much of it, the department was housed in the attic of the old university police station. I had to walk up the fire escape and across the roof to get to the department. I loved the idea that it was just starting up and I could be part of it. Bruce Klein was my advisor, and he would make me go throw the football around if I needed help. Other fond (or just memorable) times --- spending all night at the computer center to get something working, my jobs as a programmer, working at the Satellite Tracking Station during my master’s time, my SNOBOL class (what a cool language), movies at the Lyric, the Greek Cellar, playing pool at Squires, the Spudnut donut shop, among many more.

My favorite part about being the professor instead of the student is…

I don’t have a variety of classes to worry about. I can focus on my continued computer learning, and not worry about English papers or history projects. I have a hard time imagining how the students today do all they do.

In my free time I like to...

Run, cycle (I am a road cyclist and love long rides in the mountains), exercise at the gym, read (always reading and much variety), work on my guitar - mostly blues now (I am not good, but the journey is fun), hike and hopefully do more camping, and keep up with my two boys and their families (one granddaughter each).