First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:Deborah Estrin


Full name

Deborah Estrin

Birth date


What Award did you receive from IEEE?

Von Newman Medal

Place of Birth

Los Angeles

Where did you grow up

Los Angeles

Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession

Mother and father PhD EE from UW Madison-academics, now deceased. Eldest sister MD from USC-Internist. Middle sister MS Computer Science Stanford-serial entrepreneur, writer.

What did you want to do when you grew up?

Invent things.

What was your upbringing like? Did you have a large family?

I am the youngest of three daughters. We had a relatively small extended family. We traveled extensively in summers (usually connected to academic conferences that my parents were attending and sabbaticals). We grew up with The Weizmann institute of Science in Israel as a second home.

Did you have any hobbies (eg. Some people talk about learning trade skills from a family member.)

I did solder together an IMSAI 8080 kit in high school but it was not a deep hobby. Folk dancing occupied most of my non academic hours in high school.

Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?

I was the last kid to be selected for any sports team and brought down our schools testing average. I didn’t pick up running until grad school!

Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?

Nothing special

Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips? Favorite holiday/family gathering?

See above. We traveled every summer mostly throughout Europe and Israel but also made it to Peru and Brazil….thanks to my parents attending academic meetings. Many wonderful memories from the Weizmann Institute community which was like a second home and who became our extended family. And my family would never let me forget the trip to Norway along the Fjords where I spent my time looking at my math book rather than the majestic views (I was in an experimental math class in middle school and we were away for a semester and I didn’t want to fall behind!)

EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?

School: favorite was math and ceramics. University: communication theory with George Turin.

Did you have a least favorite subject in school (K-12, university. Why?

School: definitely GYM!

Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?

UC Berkeley EECS…excellent state school and I was ready to move away from home ! For grad school MIT embraced interdisciplinary work… and my mother advised I would never regret the choice once I graduated. She was right!

Employment and career: First job - Current position - Favorite job

First full time (not internship) USC CS department started as Asst Prof January 1986. Was promoted to Assoc and then Full. Moved to UCLA CS in 2000 and to Cornell Tech in 2013. They were all incredible opportunities. Favorite jobs: Being the founding Director of th NSF Science and Technology Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) at UCLA (2002-12) and my current role as Assoc Dean for Impact at Cornell Tech.

Has your career turned out as you expected?

No, I never expected to stay in Academia!!! Always thought I was too applied…32 years later….At some point I realized what a privilege it was to be able to be in academia, with the flexibility to follow what I found interspersing and hoped would be important, to have collaborators from many institutions (commercial and academic) and most of all to work with so many creative PhD students.

Has IEEE played a role in your career? How? What does IEEE mean to you?

I have been a member since college thanks to my mother. IEEE provided the intellectual gathering place and standards through conferences and journals, as well as standards working groups.

You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?

Because of my applied and multidisciplinary leanings I never thought of myself as a candidate for a medal in von Neumann name. On top of his centrality to my field of computing he was my fathers first boss out of grad school and so I knew his name before I knew what a computer was!

What other associations have helped you in your career?

ACM and IETF, and in more recent years NAE and NAM

Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?

Dig in, enjoy, seek creative and generous collaborators. Strive to do important things….and you get to define important.

Reflection: What would you have done differently or tell your younger self now?

Slow down…take more time…cultivate patience.

Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?

I think that describes all of my projects!!

What career achievement are you most proud of?

NSF STC (CENS), mobile health contributions, Cornell Tech Public Interest Tech Initiative.

Personal Life: What do you do for fun? Hobbies?

Running, Traveling, Off broadway theater, reading

What personal achievement are you most proud of?

My son Josh !!

Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?

I could live on salads :)

Do you have a prize possession? If so, please explain.


What are three things people may not know about you?

Can’t think of anything not yet said

Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)

My parents and sisters. Dave Clark (MIT) and Vint Cerf (Now Google) we’re key mentors and advisors after grad school.

What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?

A standing desk and post-its