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'Master of opportunity'

Endeared professor will soon retire after his banked load ends in 2016

By Christian Urrutia, photo editor
On March 15, 2014

  • Computer sciences department Chairperson Thomas Murphy began teaching at Contra Costa College in 2001. He plans to retire in two years when his banked load expires but will remain on campus through the fall semester. Christian Urrutia / The Advocate

High performance computing and computer sciences professor Thomas Murphy attributes his teaching philosophy to a prized quote by a Spanish author: "Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible."
Though set to unofficially retire this fall, Murphy has established a wealth of opportunities for his students, primarily through his quality instruction and outside ventures he regularly invites students to, over the course of his 13 years at Contra Costa College.
It is said by his students that he has shed light on opportunities they would have never otherwise known.
"It's been a crazy ride," computer sciences major Michial Green said. "He's a master of opportunity and has had no shame or qualms about getting those opportunities for us."
Green said that due to Murphy's instruction, he was able to teach himself an advanced form of computer programming called parallel programming and subsequently led seminars on the topic at two four-year universities.
Murphy said students like Green are teaching college faculty parallel programming and are the first in the nation to do so. Educational field trips he took students on include conferences by the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education, super computing and several Intel Developer Forums.
But future students will not be able to share this privilege.
"I expect this to be my last full semester teaching, so I have a few semesters of banked load that I will be using until I actually retire," Murphy said. "I'm the only computer sciences professor here at CCC, so it was easy for me to generate banked load, which meant that there were classes that needed to be taught and I taught them so I opted out of overtime."
Murphy has accumulated enough banked load to stay financially afloat for the next two years prior to officially retiring.
Alexis Liu, a former student of Murphy's, said that he challenges his students to perform better and that she enjoyed that he does not give students the answer but makes them work for it.
Liu, currently a senior at UC Berkeley, said the difficulty of Murphy's tests from his computer sciences courses are comparable to UC Berkeley.
"He exposed us to outside opportunities and parallel programming. (My first visit) to one of the conferences opened my eyes to high performance computing," Liu said.
She will be an Intel student representative for UC Berkeley at the upcoming Wearable Game Makeathon, which will be held during the Game Developer's Conference March 17-21.
Some of Murphy's current students will also be attending the event, adding to the list of field trips to which he has taken students.
"Our students being there (at GDC) is not just to occupy space. They're doing what Intel employees at this conference are doing: booth duty," Murphy said.
Paul Steinberg, academic community manager for Intel, said, "I started to collaborate with Murphy because of his expertise with parallel computing. I was bringing this subject into computer sciences undergraduate curriculum globally."
Most recently he funded getting a 3D printer so students can use hackathons to develop ways of 3D printing prosthetic hands for kids without hands.
"Murphy was an expert and so we worked together for a number of years and the collaboration grew from there. I've been privileged to work with these students over the years," Steinberg said.
Murphy said the biggest thing Steinberg has done to help is by enabling opportunities.
"For more than five years I have gotten 20 to 30 passes to the fall Intel Developer Forum, valued at $1,500 a pass," Murphy said.
He said that it is useful for students to get updated on the latest in computer sciences hardware and how they can be a part of it is true, and most important that it is possible for them personally to be part of a company like Intel.
One of the first students Murphy brought to IDF was Tareq Saif. Saif won the code-breaker competition at the IDF in 2009 and shortly thereafter transferred to the Energy Sciences network at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where he worked for two years as a computer systems engineer before starting his own business, Tekk Support in San Pablo.
Saif said, "The problem solving you learn is not only applicable in computer sciences, but in the real world as well. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be where I am."
Murphy said the heart of computer sciences is making mistakes, and mistakes are the only way students learn.
He plans to advise the four clubs in computer science after he stops teaching and continue working with Steinberg.
"As long as (Murphy) wants to (continuing to) work together, I'm happy to do so," Steinberg said.
Murphy said, "Most of the students from Contra Costa don't have the availability to do these things. They couldn't attend, let alone participate." 

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