Catching Up with Tunisia's Top Researcher
Saying Marouane Kessentini has had a quick start to his academic career borders on understatement.
In his five years at UM-Dearborn, the 34-year-old computer and information science associate professor has already published more than 120 papers; earned a Distinguished Teaching Award, a Distinguished Digital Education Award and a CECS Distinguished Research Award from UM-Dearborn; and forged industry partnerships that are yielding real-world applications for his lab’s innovative search-based software.
But this summer, he received what is arguably his biggest honor yet: an award from his home country of Tunisia as its Most Distinguished Researcher — handed down to him in a pomp-and-circumstance-filled ceremony by President Beji Caid Essebsi himself. Recently, we caught up with Kessentini to talk about his big day and his brief summer stint as a Tunisian celebrity.
So what was your reaction when you heard you’d won?
Honestly, I was very surprised because it’s one of Tunisia’s most prestigious awards. A dedicated committee of the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research only selects one applicant per year among all researchers in all areas; the only constraint really is that you have to be Tunisian. They told me thousands of people applied, and that included professors at MIT, Stanford and top universities around the world. Of course, usually, they also choose somebody who is a few decades into their career, so I was not at all expecting to be selected.
What was it that separated you from the pack?
One of the things they said they liked was that I was making an impact in many different areas. I was recently ranked number one in productivity from 2010 to 2017 in the research area of software engineering, and that was published by a prestigious journal. And they also liked that our team has licensed a lot of tools that we have developed, so our research is out there being used by companies. The committee also highlighted the large number of high-quality Ph.D. students who graduated from my lab during the past five years who are now professors or researchers in leading universities and companies.
And they mentioned that I had received several awards for teaching. I am really proud of that. I feel like that’s something I’ve learned from the UM-Dearborn culture — that when you consider your impact, you have to think of the student as your first priority.
The award ceremony looked like a pretty big deal. Tell us about that.
It’s true; it’s a pretty exciting day. They pick you up and they take you to the presidential palace. You walk into this big room, and the president and all the government ministers are there. It’s pretty special, you know, because you’re having lunch with and getting congratulations from all these really important people. One of the really special things is that you get to bring your parents, so it was a very exciting moment for them too. And even after that, you are doing all these interviews with the media. I think I must have done almost 20 interviews in just a couple of days.
So did you kind of feel like a celebrity for a minute?
Yes, yes! Tunisia is a small country, so when something is in the news, it’s everywhere. One day, I was in a coffee shop and some people even came over to say hi and congratulate me. And in my home city, they organized a ceremony to celebrate all over again.
But one thing I want to say is that even though I was the one who was selected, I feel like it should be a celebration for the whole campus. So many people contribute to the work we do. We have so many students and assistants and people at the university who help us submit grants. And I still consider myself junior faculty. I joined UM-Dearborn just five years ago, and having excellent mentors in the department and at the college level is the only reason I was able to achieve something like this. So it’s a dream for me, but it’s something that I’m sharing with everyone.