Geeky T-shirts, open door policy make UChicago computer scientist beloved campus figure

Borja Sotomayor fights for inclusion, mentors students and builds squirrel homes

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

“Which class do I like teaching best? Oh, you can’t ask me that—that’s like when people ask you to pick a favorite child,” says Borja Sotomayor.

In his office, surrounded by puzzles, toys, oddities and flags, the University of Chicago computer scientist thinks. He’s got a soft spot for his Networks class, teaching students “how the Internet works under the hood,” but also enjoys thinking of creative ways to build the team aspect of coding into his Intro to Software Development class. Then there’s the intro course he teaches for non-computer science majors: “It’s so satisfying to take people who don’t come from that background, and then at the end of the class, they tell you it opened up a world of possibilities for them.”

Sotomayor, SM’07, PhD’10, who heads the Department of Computer Science master’s program, is a beloved figure on campus. Recognizable by his collection of geeky T-shirts—including some he designed himself—he has taught a generation of students the basics of computer science, but he has also strived to make the department an inclusive home for all students.

“I believe very strongly in being visibly LGBTQ in the department, and that’s why I have a flag on my door,” he says. “Computer science is a field that can lean very cisgender, hetero, white or Asian male, and I think it’s so valuable when someone’s stepping into a space where they feel like they’re going to be the ‘other,’ that they don’t have to look under rocks to find people like them.”

‘A space where I was very much at home’

Sotomayor came to Hyde Park in 2004 from Bilbao, in the Basque region of Spain, to pursue his graduate degree in computer science. “I kind of fell in love with the University—that it attracts such intelligence and curiosity, that it has had a strong interdisciplinary tradition for so long. It felt like a space where I was very much at home.” Although, he chuckles, “I definitely didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

His research, with distinguished computer scientist Ian Foster, focused on a type of computing called distributed systems; but he found he also loved the connections made by teaching and mentoring students. He coached the University’s teams in the International Collegiate Programming Contest and advised other student groups connected to computer science. One of them was a group of students who got together on Friday nights to work on coding projects; when that group graduated, Sotomayor took up the mantle, and has been convening “Hack Night” ever since.

Despite the name, students don’t have to hack anything—it’s a space to gather, get advice from others, play games, and make organic connections on shared interests or projects. “It’s a low-stakes entry point for anyone,” Sotomayor says. “When I went to school in Spain, professors were sort of ‘haloed’—they weren’t someone you would form connections with. I was lucky to have some who thought differently, who welcomed students to get to know them, and that’s what I try to do.”

That’s what motivates Hack Night, the four student organizations he advises, the open door office policy, and classic movie nights or lectures in student residence halls. In between, he leads stretches for UChicago’s annual Kuvia winter festival, hikes, cooks and dabbles in part-time sciuriology.

That’s sciurology, as in the study of squirrels.

‘It tapped into my scientific curiosity’

Three years ago, Sotomayor watched a gray squirrel making trips again and again to a flower pot on his balcony. (He live-tweeted it: “Ooooooh, I think it’s building a nest. That's... cool? I guess?”) “It tapped into my scientific curiosity,” he says, and before long he had gone “full cat lady,” building a nesting box with a tiny built-in camera, and he’s since watched several generations of squirrels being raised.

“I find their behavior so fascinating,” he says. “For example, they do this thing called deceptive caching, where they’ll pretend to bury a nut when they think other squirrels are watching, then go off to hide the real nut while the robbers are investigating. How did they learn this? They didn’t go to squirrel university! And as a bonus, they’re just incredibly cute.”

The squirrels have made it (figuratively) into his office, where someone once mysteriously left him a tiny red squirrel figurine created on a 3-D printer, and into the nerdy T-shirts he co-designs with a local artist.

Other office memorabilia includes classic movie posters, Basque flags, and a collection of toys and technology—some from his former students.

It’s these kinds of connections that are the most rewarding, he says.

“I love when I go to alumni events and see people—sometimes 15 years out—from when I first started teaching,” he said. “I love seeing all my students, but some of the biggest thrills are the ones who took my intro class with no prior experience, and through that class they find out, ‘This is what I was meant to do.’

“That’s wonderful: To feel you made an impact.”