Streams

Meet Cornell’s First Academic Hire for Its Roosevelt Tech Campus

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The CornellNYC Tech school bound for Roosevelt Island has made its first academic hire: UCLA Professor of Computer Science Deborah Estrin.

Estrin was named one of 50 people this year who will change the world for “trailblazing the development of embedded networks by laying the foundations for the internet of things, participatory sensing and the future of smart cities” by Wired Magazine.

Estrin’s move to New York follows a long career in southern California, where she was born and raised. Like her parents, she became a professor at UCLA, but she says there must be some part of her that didn’t fit in; people always ask her if she’s from New York City.

Her position will officially begin in January, when she’ll teach her first class, “probably on internet architecture and protocols.” She’ll also be continuing her research focusing on the nexus of health and mobile.

CornellNYC Tech’s founding dean, Dan Huttenlocher, said in statement: “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.”

Estrin spoke with WNYC about her work in “mobile health” and the role she will play at the new school.

Do you have a clear sense of what your role will be as this new institution takes shape?

…It's sort of like joining as No. 3 or five of a new start-up… By virtue of the small numbers I think one always has a unique position…I'll be doing what I do, which is this kind of socially embedded technical innovation. So I’ll be … there to start doing the content of what the campus will be about, and then of course contribute as a good citizen and early member of building the larger team, bringing in more people, bringing in and teaching the students, engaging the local industry and start-up community, all of which I’m very much looking forward to.

Mobile health: What is the field and where is it going?

What mobile health is about is leveraging these increasingly smart phones that we’re all carrying around with us that are laden with sensors and are increasingly programmable. … So imagine someone struggling with chronic pain and wanting to reduce their dependence on opiate-based drugs—for example, wanting to see how effective introducing some alternative therapy might be, from acupuncture to ibuprofen. If you’re trying to make those changes and you really want to see what’s working for you and what’s not, the mobile phone becomes an instrument that can deliver back the kind of data to see: Am I actually walking more now on this new treatment regimen? Am I spending fewer hours at home? Am I getting out of the house and getting to work more consistently on time because this new treatment is actually being more effective for me?

How is doing this research in New York City going to be different than in Los Angeles?

The content of what mobile health is and the type of innovation we're trying to do… I think in substance will initially be very similar to what we had started. But having the opportunity to be in the context of not just New York City, but New York City in the context of this very entrepreneurial research and academic venture is exactly the kind of setting that something like mobile health needs… There’s tremendous, tremendous expectation for interaction with the very intense medical and health delivery community in New York as well as with the vibrant and growing start-up community. There’s also the culture of the foundations, all of which have a presence in New York. So from the UN to Rockefeller to Cornell-Weill Medical School to consumer-oriented plays in the health space, it really provides a nexus in which to be exploring and developing.

What about specific companies in the city that could contribute to technical innovation and entrepreneurship in this area?

From a technological perspective, from Google to Microsoft to IBM, the larger by now more established technology players are really all about what’s now called big data. And it’s all about analytics and pulling information out of the fact that so much of our daily lives from business to personal health live on a digital plane… And at the same time you see smaller more scrappy entrepreneurial activity around mobile apps. And so it's really a bringing of these things together.

Do you know where you’re going to be living in New York?

Not yet. If anyone has a good sublet to offer in the East Village please let me know.

How about Roosevelt Island?

…I hadn’t thought about that. I figured there was going to be a lot of construction going on there.

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