Juan Gilbert - The Banks Preeminence Chair in Engineering

Juan Gilbert wanted to be like the heroes in the movies he watched as a kid: the person everyone looked to for help and who would valiantly save the day. But these superheroes didn’t use their physical might to fight danger. The heroes in Gilbert’s favorite sci-fi movies wore lab coats.

“I’ve always wanted to help other people and I saw science as empowering,” says Gilbert.

As a computer science graduate student in Ohio he faced his first feat. “In my classes there were large cultural groups that had cohorts and they worked together,” Gilbert says. But, in the late 1990s, he was the only African-American in his class and never saw anyone like him in the field. Feeling isolated, he made a decision that would impact his role as a mentor and pioneer in human-centered computing.

“This motivated me to not only invent things that could shape and change society, but to mentor and help bring other people along.” Because, he says, only through inclusion and diversity can social problems wholly and truly be solved.

Thanks to the Banks Preeminence Endowment, Gilbert brought his handpicked team of 21 faculty, doctoral and postdoc students to the University of Florida in July 2015 from Clemson University to continue their work in human-centered computing.

Gilbert, now chair of the department of computer and information science engineering at the College of Engineering, is developing Prime III, software that enables voters with disabilities to cast a ballot. The software has been used in elections in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Oregon. Recently, Gilbert met with Florida officials who expressed an interest in the software.

And, to ensure the software can be widely used, Gilbert gives Prime III away for free. All the states need are computers or mobile devices, as the program runs on any platform.

Gilbert’s lab is also developing a brain-computer interface that can help a wounded warrior operate a robot with brain activity or measure distraction while texting and driving.

He was one of the first hires under UF’s Preeminence Plan. Gilbert, the Banks Preeminence Chair in Engineering, says the most important thing he teaches students is this process: Identify a problem, design a solution, build a solution, evaluate its effectiveness and implement the solution.

“I tell my students all the time, when we do a good job we know it because we’re convincing people that they could’ve done it; because it looks that easy.”

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One-third of voters with disabilities reported difficulty in voting at a polling location in the 2012 elections.


Andrew and Pamela Banks

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Inspired by the University of Florida’s quest to be ranked among the top public research universities in the nation, Andrew and Pamela Banks and their family established the Banks Preeminence Endowment, committing $5 million to support faculty, research and teaching. They are also among the first to support the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program.

Andrew Banks earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UF in 1976 and was selected as a Rhodes scholar to study at the University of Oxford, where he received a master’s degree. He then went on to earn his law degree at Harvard.

He is co-founder and former chairman of the equity investment firm ABRY Partners. Andrew Banks also serves as chairman of the board of directors of the UF Investment Corporation. UFICO manages assets totaling more than $2.4 billion.

After earning a degree in commerce from Bermuda’s Queen’s University, Dame Pamela Gordon-Banks made history in 1997 as the first woman and youngest person to serve as premier of Bermuda. Involved in Bermudian politics since 1990, Pamela also has served as a senator, representative for Southampton West, minister of youth development, and minister of the environment, planning and recreation.

Andrew and Pamela have four children and three grandchildren.

Q&A with Andrew Banks

A: Pamela and I were raised by families that had pretty clear sets of rules. We were told, “First you learn, then you earn, then you return the favors and blessings that have been bestowed on you.”

A: We don’t tell our doctors how to perform cardiac or neurosurgery so we resist the temptation to tell the university how to spend our money; this is an administration we have a great deal of respect for and a great deal of confidence in.

A: There are all forms of success and one form of success is to start a company and have it do well so you can give back to institutions like the University of Florida that mean so much to us.

A: Success begets success. We’ve started into a virtuous cycle that begins with setting the bar high and achieving that.