‘An Excellent Match:’ How Deborah Estrin, First Prof Chosen for CornellNYC Tech, Was Drawn to Roosevelt Island

August 30, 2012 12:00 am0 comments
Emma Court

Deborah Estrin’s resume reads like the perfect addition to a multibillion dollar project that many hope will transform New York City into a hub of technological innovation and entrepreneurship. Estrin, the first professor hired to teach at CornellNYC Tech, will put that resume to work when the first degree program launches in January.

Estrin, an accomplished professor of computer science who is currently finishing her tenure at UCLA, said that her interest in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s competition among universities to build an applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island was piqued upon learning details about Cornell’s plan for the campus.

“When I actually saw the details of what Cornell had put into its proposal, it really felt like such an excellent match with my interests,” Estrin said. “The opportunity to be part of building something that was a very applied and connected and entrepreneurial version of innovations around information technology was really what drew me, because that is the style of my work … but it was also the style of work and of an institution that I was really drawn to be a part of.”

Faculty in Cornell’s computer science department, including Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of CornellNYC Tech, evaluated candidates for the position before settling on Estrin this summer. Although Huttenlocher said the department did not specifically set out to make Estrin their first hire, he highlighted several reasons why he considered her an ideal early choice for CornellNYC Tech.

“One, she’s absolutely at the very top of her field academically. Two, she’s done a lot of things with real world impact, both commercially and in the nonprofit sector. And third, she’s a fantastic colleague, especially in early hiring,” he said. “We needed a team player who would help build the new campus, and she definitely has those interests and skills.”

Estrin has garnered accolades in recent years for her pioneering research in the areas of networked sensors and, more recently, for her work with mobile health. Using mobile technology, such as cell phones, she has sought to improve communication between patients and physicians, as well as the process of gathering information about patients. 

When CornellNYC Tech’s first class of students begins working toward a Master’s of Engineering degree, one of the three or four core courses they will take will be a computer networking class taught by Estrin. In Fall 2013, Estrin will teach a class about mobile innovation, which she said will touch upon her work with mobile health but not focus exclusively on the topic. 

Estrin said she collaborated with other new CornellNYC Tech faculty members to develop the curriculum for the degree. Although Cornell’s Ithaca campus already offers a Master of Engineering program, Estrin said the New York City campus’ curriculum for that degree will have a different focus.

“I think you could say that any course that we teach in New York City you might well find in Ithaca as well, but that overall … there will be more specialized, applied, project-oriented electives,” she said.

The Masters of Engineering in Computer Science degree is the first program the campus will offer, but only one of four masters of engineering programs that CornellNYC Tech will eventually offer, according to Huttenlocher. The Roosevelt Island campus will also offer a Master of Business Administration program, and two-year interdisciplinary graduate programs will be offered in conjunction with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology — Cornell’s partner institution in creating the tech campus.

Estrin emphasized her excitement to be a part of what she called an an innovative “experiment.”

“I think my interest in experimental, empirically driven applied work is the same interest that makes me want to be a part of this,” she said. “We’re going to learn as we go along, which is the nature of that iterative, empirically based innovation, which is very much in the nature of innovation technology, and [which] will be very much in the nature of our organization.”

Earlier this year, Wired called Estrin one of the “50 people who will change the world.” Also this year, CNN dubbed her one of the 10 most powerful women in the tech industry — an honor often bestowed upon chief officers of billion dollar companies, including like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and JLabs’ Judith Estrin. In 2003, Estrin was named to Popular Science’s “Brilliant 10.”

The last name is no coincidence. Judith Estrin, who herself has founded several successful technology companies, is also Deborah Estrin’s sister. Science excellence runs in the Estrin family.

Both Judith and Deborah Estrin are inductees in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. Their other sister, Margot, is an internal medicine specialist in California. Their parents, Thelma and Gerald Estrin, were both computer scientists at UCLA.

Estrin received her Bachelor of Science from the University of California at Berkeley before earning a master’s degree in technology policy and a Ph.D. in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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