Skip to navigation Skip to content Skip to footer

Kayvon Fatahalian: From National Champion to Professor at Carnegie Mellon

Kayvon Fatahalian: From National Champion to Professor at Carnegie Mellon

For Assistant Professor of Computer Science Kayvon Fatahalian, Carnegie Mellon University is the best of many worlds. "The faculty here are pushing students to be great, while making their own mark in the world. The expectation of our community is to create really nice people that do great things," he stated.

Yet when Fatahalian was an undergraduate majoring in Computer Science and playing tennis at the school, he never envisioned he would return as a professor. "I had no intention of becoming an academic," he recalled. "Over the course of getting my PhD, I evolved into wanting this. Orginally, I went to Stanford to work on hard technical problems and then move into industry. The job came up at CMU and I have been here since."

Growing up in Central Texas in a suburb of Austin, Fatahalian played soccer as well as tennis. “For a while I was playing both soccer and tennis, but it became too much,” he recalled. “I don’t know why I picked tennis other than I liked practicing tennis a lot more than soccer. I just liked playing soccer.”

The Carnegie Mellon Computer Science program appealed to him as did attending college in a different region from the one he grew up in. “I visited late in the process, just a few days before admissions. I was very nervous because I still wasn’t sure where I wanted to go,” Fatahalian stated. “I just liked it and felt comfortable when I got on campus. It was obvious this was the place for me. Given that I liked to use computing for media related applications, the CS program appealed to me.”

“I knew the program was very difficult,” he added. “I didn’t know if being a good public school student would translate into being a good student at CMU.”

For Fatahalian, playing tennis was something to maintain balance in his life. “CS is very demanding and takes a lot of your time. To have sports was great,” he said. “I got to take trips on the weekend and the bus rides with friends on the team were fun. However, with the combination of CS at CMU and varsity tennis, all my time was spent on tennis or on classes. There wasn't the opportunity for a third thing. Social life was spending your time with teammates.”

Fatahalian earned second team All-Association honors in 2000 and 2001, and led the Tartans to a third-place team finish in the 2000 UAA championship. “The most exciting matches were in the UAA tournament,” he recalled. “That was the most fun. We weren’t nationally ranked so the team was excited to play in meaningful matches. It was the end of the road for most teams.”

“I recall I changed my forehand grip the summer before coming to CMU, and wasn't used to it yet. When I stepped on campus I still could not picture how to hit a forehand. It finally started rolling around December,” he remembered. “It was great, because I had all the tools I always had, but now I also had a forehand. Also, since I was not part of a tennis academy in high school, the spring season at CMU was the first time I'd been in a position to play competitive matches that counted every weekend. I was getting the chance to play every day and play competitively every week, and that really helped me get to a point where I was playing better than I had before.”

His greatest success on the court came in national championships. He qualified for the NCAA Division III Men’s Tennis Championship three times in singles and twice in doubles with partner Jonathan Hui. “Jon and I were good friends and had a lot of team projects together in classes,” he commented. “I spent a lot more time with Jon in the lab than on the tennis court and we enjoyed that aspect. We are still good friends to this day.” Hui and Fatahalian reached the round of 16 at both the 2000 and 2001 NCAA championships.

Fatahalian became the first UAA men’s tennis player to win the NCAA singles title since Noel Occomy of Brandeis University in 1988 when he won the championship in his freshman season. “It was the end of the year for me and I had just taken all of my finals. I had done well, and was feeling relieved that I had gotten through my first year, had become comfortable I could cut it at CMU academically.” he recalled. “Nationals felt like the capstone of the academic year and I could just focus on practicing for a week or two before the tournament.”

Photos: Kayvon Fatahalian at the 2000 NCAA Men's Tennis Championship; Photo by John Lacko, NCAA

Interestingly, it wasn’t until he became the first UAA men’s player to win the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Division III Small College National Championship title in the fall of 2000 that he truly appreciated the NCAA title five months earlier. “When I won ITA’s, I felt a lot more proud of having won NCAAs,” he stated. “It was important for me to confirm to myself that I deserved to win the NCAA title. There is a big difference between someone who wins once and someone who wins twice. When I won NCAAs, I wondered if I just got lucky. You need a little bit of luck at the right time to win a national championship. I remember much more about the ITA championship than the NCAA one.”

He reached the NCAA singles round of 32 in 2001 and then finished his career as a junior with a semifinal appearance in 2002. “I took a lot of time off after winning ITAs as a sophomore. I was very tired physically and academically,” he remarked. “Then I got really excited my junior year. I wanted to enjoy it, knowing I wouldn’t play my senior year. To finish my last tournament (2002 NCAAs) was memorable.”

Fatahalian chose not to play his senior year to focus on his academics and future. “Tennis was very intense. I needed those 20-25 hours a week back to put into research,” he said. “Our team had very talented players, but we had a great perspective on our roles in the world. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously.”

As is common for those who study computer science as an undergraduate, Fatahalian pursued his PhD, which he earned at Stanford. “I am envious of people who know at that stage of life what they want to do,” he said. “When I went to Stanford, I assumed I would do some cool stuff and thought maybe I would go to a start-up company. Then a colleague said to me, ‘Given what you are good at, you may be good as a professor.’ Carnegie Mellon is a very healthy and supportive place. It is intense, but supportive.”

“The best two parts of working in a technical field is that you don’t have a boss (you work on whatever you want) and you get the opportunity to work with students, both undergraduate and PhD students,” he added. “We have a constant influx of motivated students. At CMU, we don’t explicitly set out to motivate as our students are highly motivated already, but maybe we inspire by what we do and what we talk about in class. I get to teach really smart students and see the vestiges of people who are on the front cover of the New York Times five years later.”

A regular presenter, Fatahalian was the Applications Keynote Speaker at the Architecture 2030 Workshop last June, when he spoke on “100 Quadrillion Live Pixels: The Challenge of Continuously Interpreting, Organizing, and Generating the World’s Visual Information." To see the presentation, click on the photo below or click here.

In December, he created a talk called "Do Grades Matter?" to challenge Carnegie Mellon students to think bigger than just striving to get good grades in a bunch of hard classes. (Click on the title to see the slides from the presentation.)

Fatahalian still follows the tennis program at Carnegie Mellon and attends as many home matches as his schedule allows, but doesn’t play a lot himself anymore. “You never go physically all out anymore like you did when you were in college,” he said. “I kind of miss flying around at full speed. We must have been really fit back then. My teammates have gone on to do really interesting things and I miss those times with them on the bus and our weekend trips.”