More than 20 years ago, Microsoft introduced Windows and Word. Chipsets began to be found on motherboards. Dell was initiated from a college dorm room, Compaq introduced the first portable computer, and the Mac SE made its debut.

Jeff Gray recently was awarded the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award. He is the fourth UAB professor to win the award.

Jeff Gray, Ph.D., celebrated his 16th birthday Nov. 20, 1985 — the same day Windows 1.0 was released. While Microsoft and Apple were evolving, Gray’s interest in computers was in overdrive as he was developing the software for an electronic bulletin-board system.

“People would call my house, log on to my PC and send messages to each other,” Gray says. “The speed of the modem back then was 110 or 300 bits-per-second. You could almost out-type the modem.”

Gray, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences (CIS), discovered early in his youth that computer science was the field in which he wanted to operate. His decision has proven fruitful for him, his students and for UAB.

Gray recently received the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, presented annually to a select faculty nationwide. The award supports exceptionally promising university faculty who integrate research and education and who likely will become the academic leaders of the 21st century.

Gray’s selection marks the fourth NSF CAREER Award given to a UAB faculty member in the 12-year history of the award. It’s the first time a member of the CIS department was selected for the honor, although Anthony Skjellum, Ph.D., chair of the CIS Department, was a recipient of the award while he was on the faculty at Mississippi State University.

Early start
It’s no surprise Gray would win an award this prestigious. After all, he showed early potential; the software developed for his bulletin-board system won the West Virginia State Science Fair in the computer science division when he was a sophomore.

“I’m not Al Gore,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t invent the Internet. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) built the Internet. The bulletin-board system was just a way for the people in my West Virginia community to get together and communicate at a time when online computing among the general public was in its infancy.”

Gray’s bulletin-board was just the beginning. For the following year’s science project, he built the software that would allow two computers to play tic-tac-toe against each other and learn from mistakes.

“It was like one machine was teaching the other how to play,” he says. This project earned him honors in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (now called the Intel Science Search) and placed him as a top 25 international semi-finalist in the Edison-McGraw Science Competition.

Paying it forward
While computers are Gray’s interest, teaching others how to use them is his passion.

The NSF is rewarding his research in model-driven engineering and numerous activities that improve the awareness of computing in Alabama with a $400,000 grant to support new lines of research and educational opportunities for students.

The grant will help support community outreach endeavors like the recently held statewide High School Programming Contest and Alice Film Festival, which he organized with support from colleagues in the UAB Department of Computer and Information Sciences.

“These young kids are just unbelievable,” Gray says of the students in grades 4-12 that attended. “They are just so smart and talented.”

Three high-school students solved all six problems in the programming contest in three hours, including one that required them to write a computer program that would generate the missing numbers to fill out a Sudoku puzzle and another to convert Roman numerals to decimals.”

The Alice Film Festival challenges students to use the Alice 3-D interactive computer program to create a one-minute movie. Gray was ecstatic with the student turnout and quality of the work submitted by students.

“We had a fourth-grader win the Alice contest at the elementary school level,” Gray said. “One kid from Auburn City Schools sent a video, and I couldn’t figure out how to run it. It was incredible. It was like watching an episode of the new reality show, Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”

Tomorrow’s leaders
Gray enjoys the opportunity to watch and teach young people at these contests and the summer computing camps the CIS department hosts. He also takes great pride in the students coming through the CIS program at UAB and embraces the importance of being a good mentor.

This past spring, Will Whitney, a sophomore at Mountain Brook High School who spent a year in Gray’s lab, won the Alabama State Science and Engineering Fair in the computer-science category for research on a self-parking vehicle.

“These kids are tomorrow’s leaders,” Gray said. “If you reach a couple hundred kids a year, you never know what kind of difference that might make.”