Over the summer, Deborah Estrin, a computer science professor at UCLA, was named the first professor of Cornell’s NYC tech campus. The Sun interviewed Estrin about her role in developing the tech campus’ curriculum, how CornellNYC will influence technological innovation and the experience of being a woman in a notoriously male-dominated field.
The Sun: How did you first get involved in the CornellNYC tech campus project?
Deborah Estrin: I was contacted by the Cornell computer science department I want to say in early May or something like that, in the beginning of their search for senior faculty.
Sun: What drew you to the project?
D.E.: I, of course, had heard about the competition, and things like that. It felt like such an excellent match with my research. I heard about all the activity going on and it sounded like a pretty inspired and important vision.
Sun: What role are you playing in developing the curriculum for the tech school?
D.E.: Faculty members together develop the curriculum. We as a group determine what will initially be a small profile of courses. Initially, we’re focusing on the Master of Engineering program in computer science, which we’re starting up in January. Over time the other master’s programs will start up. There’ll be a separate Master of Engineering in each of the four disciplines represented on the campus.
There’ll also be a business degree, and then there’ll be the two year more interdisciplinary programs with Technion. I’m primarily involved in the Master of Engineering in computer science. But because there are courses in common and faculty in common there’ll be pretty close coordination across the full set of master’s degrees.
Sun: Cornell already has a Master of Engineering program in computer science at its campus in Ithaca. What differentiates the tech campus’ curriculum from programs that already exist at Cornell?
D.E.: Initially we’ll be starting out with a smaller profile of courses, which will grow to be as rich as what you have at the Ithaca campus … there will be core courses around building the foundations and fundamentals in core areas of the discipline — courses that have a more applied bent to them … Every Master of Engineering student in New York City will have some amount of business and entrepreneurial electives, as opposed to them being free electives … The New York City campus will be populated entirely of student with that profile. So it’s like taking a component of what Ithaca does and really have the entrepreneurship focus dominate.
Sun: Last Wednesday CornellNYC tech started accepting applications for their “beta” class of students, who would start taking classes for a one-year Master of Engineering degree program for computer science in January 2013. What qualities do you think make an ideal candidate for the tech campus?
D.E.: Obviously we want the same intellectual abilities that a master’s student in Ithaca would have as a base. But I think that the ideal student, similar to the ideal faculty if you will for New York City, has a very career interest in applied and entrepreneurial activities. … They would also need a strong background in computer science, but a strong interest in moving that into the real world. Most masters’ students fit that bill. But I think there’s an increased focus on those who have a particularly entrepreneurial bent.
Sun: How do you see CornellNYC tech influencing the field of technology? What innovations do you see the project bringing?
D.E.: It’s important to have a campus that is hospitable to entrepreneurial activities and applications-driven innovation. Most big computer science programs fit that description that they’re hospitable and accept that kind of work, but the focus of this campus is to actually be overtly promoting and emphasizing that kind of activity. It’s about taking an element about what we’ve seen within academic computer science — in Ithaca and other excellent universities — and really selecting for that gene, and breeding that as the emphasis across the whole department and the whole tech campus. It’s not that all departments should be that way; it’s not that Ithaca should switch to be that way. But it allows for this style of work and activity to really grow and flourish. And it’s not just going to be computer science, it’s going to be information sciences and computer engineering and operations research. It’s a very powerful mix of perspectives, all of which have this applied entrepreneurial bent. I don’t think that we’ve seen this kind of combination come together in this way maybe since the hayday of open research in the university.
Sun: What has your experience been like as a woman in the technology field? Do you think women face particular barriers in what is a notoriously male-dominated field? Will CornellNYC tech conduct outreach specifically to women?
D.E.: I’ve been very fortunate in how I’ve been treated from my days as a young computer scientist to my days as a not-so-young computer scientist. Personally being a woman has not been a roadblock—you feel that there aren’t enough women around, and it’s important and important to me to bring more women into field. It’s just such an exciting and impactful and important and creatively inspiring place to be. And I think the Tech Campus is very much dedicated to outreach to women and other underrepresented minorities. We’re so small at the moment that the details of that will be emerging as we start up. I think we’ll see it from the onset likely in our education activities with K-12, and in our hiring. But if you ask me about specific plans or policies, I don’t know what those are yet.
Sun: Can you tell me a little bit about your recent work? Will that figure into your work at CornellNYC tech at all?
D.E.: Starting several years ago, my work partially shifted to being about preventative pervasive mobile technology ... in what you would refer to as participatory sensing, which is around data gathering and civic engagement,;and around mobile health, where we build applications and techniques for mobile cloud technology, to support patients and clinicians in management particularly of chronic diseases. So that’s really where the focus of my work has been and will continue for some time. Being in NYC with Weill Cornell medical school there happens to be a great setting for my personal work.
Sun: You will move to NYC in the next couple of months. It’s a big move, transitioning from the west to east coast. Do you have any qualms about NYC life?
D.E.: No, just hoping I can find the perfect apartment in the East Village. Other than that I’m excited for the change.