Tattoos, motorcycles and cybersecurity: An IST professor’s unique career

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When students first meet Gerry Santoro, they know he is not a typical college professor. Casually dressed with a long beard and tattoos decorating his arms, his warm and offbeat demeanor puts people at ease. His youngest daughter once said he had the maturity level of an 18-year-old.

“I told her that was a tremendous compliment,” Santoro said. “And she smiled and said, ‘That’s how I meant it!’” After 40 years of teaching, the 63-year-old is now preparing for his retirement from the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) in the spring of 2017.

When he first began teaching at Penn State as a professor in communication arts and sciences, he noticed a disconnect between the students and faculty. “Students didn’t know the teacher as anything other than a talking head, and the teacher didn’t know the student as anything other than a student ID,” he said.

That was when he decided to make his teaching style more casual, dressing in T-shirts for lectures and going so far as to cover his arms in tattoos. “These are things I wanted to do anyway! But I was amazed at how it broke down the barriers between me and my students.” They began approaching him more for questions or even to discuss things outside of the classroom. “That made teaching so much more fun for me,” he said.

As a high school student growing up in Pittsburgh, Santoro got his start in computing through his own connection with a teacher. While working on his master’s degree, that teacher received a grant to expose teenagers to the emerging field of computer science. Santoro was one of the students chosen for the project. “I did some programming and developed a cool early program in astronomy that would read a database of information about galaxies and come out with an actual distribution of their sizes and shapes,” he said.

His passion for astronomy continues to this day. In his spare time, he created his own observatory named the Dog Star Observatory. Famed astronomer Carl Sagan even wrote him a note wishing him good luck in its construction. “Carl Sagan was my role model in terms of teaching because he could take some technical information and make it fun. That’s what I try to do, make them like [Sagan’s] Cosmos,” he explained.

David Rusenko, 2007 IST graduate and co-founder of Weebly, said of Santoro’s teaching style, "He was the type of professor that deeply cared about helping you learn, as much as you could and in your own way. He was always willing to put in extra effort to help customize the learning experience for an engaged student."

“My job as a teacher is not to throw the students in the water and see who sinks. My job is to help every kid swim so no one drowns. A part of that is making the material interesting and accessible,” Santoro said.

Santoro's academic credentials include a doctorate in communication and information science from Penn State and a master of science in information science from the University of Pittsburgh. In 1983, he returned to Penn State as a staff member working to develop local area networks and internet training.

Although his original academic and professional background was largely in computer science, Santoro was more interested in the technology’s application. “What is interesting to me about technology is not how it’s made, but how it’s used, how it’s misused, and the effect it has on people,” he said. “That’s what distinguishes us here at IST.”

His most recent accomplishment is receiving the Undergraduate Program Leadership Award for 2017. This University-level award recognizes undergraduate professors who have transformed or revitalized the undergraduate program they work in. Those who’ve worked with Santoro are quick to commend him.

“Dr. Santoro’s impact has been immeasurable on both the curriculum and his students, particularly in his efforts to earn the National Center of Excellence accreditation,” Andrew Sears, dean of IST, said. “His passion for cybersecurity has continually helped them find their way to fulfilling careers.” 

Since joining the college at its founding in 1999, Santoro helped to grow the program into a robust curriculum. As one of the first faculty members hired, he helped to develop the first course, IST 110. He eventually became the program coordinator for the security and risk analysis major. Through his diligence, Penn State earned accreditation as a Cybersecurity National Center of Excellence from the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

Over his 40 years teaching, he said he has seen innovations in technology he never would have thought possible in his lifetime. “When I was a student, if someone said we’d have cellphones that we do now, you’d be laughed out of the room.” Gesturing to his iPhone, he said, “This phone is 100 times more powerful than the computer that put the first men on the moon.”

After his retirement, he is planning to move to southern Florida with his wife, Suzanne. “I spent one week there over Christmas; I said this is the place that’s going to keep me energized in retirement. I won’t be one of those people who wear pajamas all day and watch TV!”

He is even planning on more tattoos. “When I retire, I’m going to get a big Penn State logo with the years I’ve worked here,” he said. He also has bell tattoos on each wrist, four for his children, Kelsey, Brandi, Travis and Gerald, and two for his grandchildren, Logan and Alice. “I’m about to add another bell for another grandchild in a few months, too!” he said proudly.

Although he has much to look forward to in retirement, Santoro said he will miss his students greatly. “They’re challenging, they’re brilliant, they’re frustrating and they have an incredible energy,” he said. “[I urge students to] find something to be passionate about. If it can be your career, that is wonderful. But if not, you need that passion to give your life meaning or else you’re just a rat running through a maze.”

Last Updated April 25, 2017