Silicon Alley U

Cornell’s Tech Campus Poaches UCLA’s Deborah Estrin for Its Technologist Dream Team

We almost forgive you for calling it CornellNYC Tech. ALMOST!
 Cornells Tech Campus Poaches UCLAs Deborah Estrin for Its Technologist Dream Team

(Photo: Asilomarssc.org)

Earlier this week, Betabeat had the privilege of speaking with Deborah Estrin, the first academic faculty member announced for Cornell and Technion’s $2 billion tech campus. (Coming soon-ish to an island near you!) For an institution concerned with spinning out an army of startups based on the latest technological developments, it’s hard to think of a more fitting hire.

Most recently, Ms. Estrin worked as a professor at UCLA, where she founded the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing. She also heads East with a number of accolades, including being named one of the “Brilliant 10” in Popular Science‘s list of elite researchers. This year, Wired included her on a list of “50 People Who Will Change the World” and CNN called her of the “10 Most Powerful Women in Tech.” That last distinction Ms. Estrin shares with her sister, serial entrepreneur Judy Estrin.

Must be something in the genes: Their mother, Dr. Thelma Estrin, is a pioneer in the field of biomedical engineering. 

Both Ms. Estrin’s research in networked sensors as well as Open mHealth–the mobile health nonprofit she cofounded–share a practical bent, tackling issues like traffic patterns, energy usage, and treating soldiers with PTSD. “Her forte is building real systems that solve societal and industrial problems,” Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, said in a press release about Ms. Estrin’s appointment. “We are looking for faculty members who have made an impact in the academic, commercial and societal realms, and she’s a superstar in all three,” added Dan Huttenlocher, dean of the new campus.

Ms. Estrin won’t officially move to New York until January, she told Betabeat by phone, although she did sound right at home on a cacophonous East Village street corner. Ms. Estrin’s work in networked sensors is just starting to hit the mainstream, but her emphasis these days is on personalized, mobile health. That being said, she added, “One of the most exciting things about computing technology and the Internet,” is its ability to cut across various disciplines. That works with CornellNYC Tech’s nimble academic structure, which calls for evolving hubs on health, mobile, and  based on the next big wave in tech.

“It’s not just about one featured hub,” Ms. Estrin explained. “Not only are we breaking boundaries between academia and industry, but I think we’ll be paying a lot of attention not to build too many boundaries among ourselves.”

The common theme across her academic career, she said, is her inability to resist chasing down the next big technological innovation. “I was in the middle of doing wireless sensors and distributed sensing in the mid-2000s when mobile phones started becoming so much more than talking and texting devices,” said Ms. Estrin. “With their data capabilities and programmability, they became really interesting distributed sensors. As someone who came up in a generation in which the Internet emerged, it became far too interesting of an opportunity to leverage. So if these are distributed sensors, then where are they? They’re on people. Moving into applications [that] help people capture data about themselves–the killer app is around personalized medicine and personalized wellness.”

“It’s an interesting balance,” she added, “where you’re trying to chase, and lead, and herd. All at once!”

In terms of leadership, Ms. Estrin also sounds poised to help change the much-bemoaned ratio of women in the field. “Being a woman technologist is part of the sort of technologist that I am,” she said. “I’ve always really benefitted from having other women around–always wished there were more, always looking for opportunities to promote their being more. And so I bring that anywhere I go and I’m looking forward to that on the tech campus as well.”

It’s an issue that will be increasingly relevant as technology intersects with every facet of our lives. “In these areas that have so much connection to society, there’s lots of opportunities to pull women in from many avenues,” she theorized. “Those that are sort of tech-y nerds from the start, as I perhaps was, to folks who want to come in and try to solve problems and get engaged in technology as a great way to do that.”

You can also expect Ms. Estrin’s tenure at CornellNYC to emphasize open-source innovation. “Everything we developed [at UCLA] was always open source,” she said. “In our ecosystem, it’s really great when commercial enterprises have open source architecture and open source ecosystems on which to build because companies don’t spend time redeveloping the commodity components, their innovation is sort of pushed up and built on those commodity components and overall the commercial world gets more innovation.”

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com