Cracking the code to creativity

Elaine Cohen is a professor of computer science at the University of Utah. She inspired Bruce Gooch to pick up the teaching baton and pass what he learned — and more — on to a whole new generation of students.

Bruce Gooch wasn’t your typical computer student. For starters, his background was in mathematics, and he had no idea how to code.

“I used to be an actuary, and, after a wildly unsuccessful job search, was looking for something new.”

He decided to go back to school for computer science. By his own admission, he looked more like an outlaw biker than a professor. But once he began studying with Elaine, preconceptions fell away and he found the space and support he needed to excel.

Elaine showed Bruce that coding could be creative. By giving him the responsibility and ownership to explore his ideas, he found the inspiration to make new leaps in the field. As he puts it, “Elaine took away the chains from my mind.”

Elaine recalls, “Bruce was always very inventive and creative. His whole dissertation was something quite innovative that let him do stuff that nobody had done before. He created beautiful work.”

Elaine took away the chains from my mind.

— Bruce Gooch, Founder, Expressive Computer Graphics

Bruce took this encouragement and ran with it, co-authoring a paper on the fundamental shading algorithms in computer science. Prior to the paper, there were only three such algorithms. “Now there’s a fourth,” says Bruce. “It’s called Gooch Shading.”

He even wrote and published the first book in the field of non-photorealistic rendering — an area he helped discover — while he was a grad student, and he has become one of its top voices.

“Elaine let me know that I could do something that I could barely imagine doing—this thing that students just don’t do. My book was published at the same time and by the same company as her book. Students aren’t supposed to do this stuff!”

Because she developed a trust and respect with Bruce, friendship grew between them.

“I think that’s part of being a mentor, coaching people to understand that they can cope with whatever life gives you. It’s not easy, but you can do it if you’re passionate enough about what you’re doing.”

Throughout her career, Elaine has watched her students go on to enjoy all kinds of success.“I consider my students my ‘professional children.’ And when they grow into being successful professionals, it feels good.”

Bruce is one of those “children.” Now at Texas A&M, he helps students learn to create games and computer animations. He gives his students the same encouragement that Elaine gave him, with the perspective and experience to back it up.

“I’ve started some companies, and I have software that’s with millions of users. That’s what I’m pushing as ‘possible’ with my students. You can start a company. You can deploy a product. You can do these things that 20 years ago no one could.”

And Bruce is quick to point out how he got where he is: “Elaine encouraged me to do my own thing. She gave me an extreme amount of confidence, and the ability to see possibilities I hadn’t seen before.”