Deborah Estrin, SM '83, PhD '85


Deborah Estrin SM '83, PhD '85
On June 28, 2012, Cornell University announced that Deborah Estrin had accepted the position of professor of computer science — the first hire for Cornell Tech , the new technology center on Roosevelt Island off Manhattan. As the Founding Director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) 2002–2012, and a professor of computer science at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Prof. Estrin is noted as a pioneer in networked sensing, using mobile and wireless systems to collect and analyze real time data about the physical world.

“Her forte is building real systems that solve societal and industrial problems,” Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and MIT president emeritus noted for the Cornell Tech press release. Enthusiastic about this new direction, Prof. Estrin says: “The vision articulated by the founders of Cornell Tech is a perfect match for my interests. Their entire campus will focus on technology innovation, application and impact through both commercial and social entrepreneurship. It is an opportunity to build an institution of teaching and research that engages ‘The City’ as co-innovators.”

In 2007, when Deborah Estrin spoke on receiving the Anita Borg Institute’s Women of Vision Award for Innovation, she credited her family, saying, “I grew up surrounded by the ideals of pursuing science and engineering as a stimulating and creative way to have a positive impact on the world.” Deborah and her two older sisters were raised by two electrical engineers, who she notes were also strong feminists. Their late father Gerald Estrin, a professor in computer science at UCLA, was noted for developing reconfigurable computing while working in the von Neumann group at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Their mother, Thelma Estrin, also a professor of computer science at UCLA, has done pioneering work in the field of biomedical engineering. In familial line, Thelma was inducted into the Women in Technology Iternational (WITI) Hall of Fame in 1999, followed by her daughters Judy in 2002 and Deborah in 2008. Margo Estrin is a medical doctor in California. Quoted text

As a young girl, Deborah Estrin loved taking an experimental six-year math course in middle and high schools. She was so devoted to this class that when her parents took her with them on a sabbatical to Norway, she stuck with these studies. Family photos reveal her buried in her math book strikingly framed by the Norwegian Fjords. She says about herself as a 12 year old: “I think mostly I was just determined. I took myself seriously at a young age. I think that more than anything else is what helped me.”

Deborah Estrin also considers herself very fortunate to have met influential women mentors while she was an undergraduate at Berkeley (BS ’80). Dr. Barbara Simons, noted for her work on electronic voting, was a graduate student there when Estrin was a freshman. Dr. Simons and Sheila Humphreys, then Associate Director of the Women’s Center at UC Berkeley, had convened a group of women in computer science and invited Deborah Estrin to join them. Inspired by this group and the spirit of “Berkeley in the ‘70s”, she notes on graduating: “I left Berkeley not only with a desire to invent things but also with a lot of idealism and activism. I wanted to fix the world, not just solve technical problems.”

Following Berkeley, Deborah Estrin enrolled for graduate work in both the Technology Policy Program (TPP) and computer science at MIT. After earning her masters in 1983, she returned to technical design because, she describes, “I found the nature of social science research very far from social activism. I have a more active than 'pondering' personality. Creating technology is 'active'— it's about doing, about movement.”

Working towards her PhD in computer science, Deborah Estrin says MIT introduced her to a world of passionate technologists. Through example and active inclusion, she notes, Dave Clark introduced her to the nascent Internet research and engineering community. She credits her advisor, Jerry Saltzer with taking her as his student despite her mixture of interests. “He believed in me and had high expectations and plenty of constructive criticism!” She also notes that both “…Jerry and Dave valued impact, and system-building and use, over publications.”

In the late 80's, soon after graduate school as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at University of Southern California, Deborah Estrin plunged into collaborative activities in Internet protocol design. Dave Clark introduced her to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) through which she became involved with colleagues at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI). ISI had built and launched the key infrastructure for the Internet—the Domain Name System and the Request for Comments (RFC) process—providing the foundation for today’s Internet economy. She became full professor in 1998.

In the late 90's as a member of DARPA's Information Science and Technology (ISAT) study group and surrounded by people pursuing bold new ideas, Prof. Estrin took the initiative to start off in a new direction—wireless sensing. In 2002 Deborah Estrin, by then a faculty member at UCLA, founded the NSF Science and Technology Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS 2002-2012), which she directed for ten years. Through the work at CENS, new technologies in support of environmental monitoring applications were developed and set in place.

Deborah Estrin notes that her motivation for wireless sensing was inspired while she was on vacation in Costa Rica. She says: “This sounds like something for the press but I was sitting in the Costa Rican rain forest thinking about how to help ecologists understand and protect such a dense ecosystem where there was so much biodiversity to capture/measure within what would have been a single pixel of a satellite image. Environmental monitoring as the killer app for distributed sensing all started there for me.”

Over the past few years, Deborah Estrin has increasingly turned to mobile health. She co-founded with Ida Sim, Professor of Medicine at University of California San Francisco (UCSF), the nonprofit Open mHealth in 2011. They co-authored a position paper in 2010 for Science Magazine putting out the call for open mobile health architecture. Subsequently, the two convened a group of experts from the software and health worlds to bridge health and technology. The online entity Open mHealth invites collaborators from developer resources to health entrepreneurs and professionals to share resources. See:

She notes about this work: “First with colleagues at UCLA (William Kaiser and Gregory Pottie) we started doing mobile sensing since fixed point sensing has limitations of scalability and economics. And around the same time mobile phones were becoming prevalent and Nokia invited me to a workshop. These two things happened to be resident in my head at the same time, and ever since then I have been looking at mobile phones as sensors, as sources of data – and from that to participatory sensing [for both civic engagement and STEM education] to mobile health was really just an obvious progression.”

Now in her latest career move as Professor of Computer Science at Cornell Tech (and Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College), Deborah Estrin is in a position to pursue these interests from a fresh perspective and environment. Under Cornell Tech ’s mission for technical excellence with a focus on collaborative projects, industry mentors and entrepreneurship and business, Prof. Estrin will not only enhance that mission but also gain new ways to pursue her life goals for creating technology that has a positive societal impact.

2013 MIT EECS Connector
Click on the link above or the cover image above to access the 2013 issue of the MIT EECS Connector.
Alumni in EECS Connector 2013
The 2013 MIT EECS Connector featured Deborah Estrin, SM '83, PhD '85; Dropbox co-founders Drew Houston, SB '05, and Arash Ferdowsi '08; Khan Academy creator and educator Sal Khan, SB, MEng '98; and Susie Wee, '90, SM '91, and PhD '98, Cisco VP and Chief Technology Officer of Networked Experiences. Read more about these amazing individuals in the Connector!