People

Former Chief Scientist at Yahoo Labs to Lead Technion-Cornell Institute

September 05, 2016

Multiplying Impact

Ronald J. Brachman
Ronald J. Brachman built a career on the "nonacademic side of the fence" by affiliating himself with projects at their early stages. He created an artificial-intelligence group from scratch at AT&T Bell Laboratories and helped start Yahoo Labs, where he was recently chief scientist.

"I love the flexibility and unknown of helping to create something different," he says. "And, frankly, I did not know it was possible in academia because universities have been in existence for quite a long time and have long, very solid histories."

So this spring, when Mr. Brachman was offered the job of director of the Joan & Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, he recognized the opportunity to create something new within a university setting, and was eager for a challenge. The institute, part of the four-year-old Cornell Tech campus, is a technology-focused graduate-school partnership between Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa.

Mr. Brachman will be director for a five-year term, starting in October. The current director, Adam Shwartz, is formally affiliated with Technion, and Mr. Brachman’s successor will be as well, though all directors are physically based in New York City.

While it is still early to have firmed up his plans, Mr. Brachman is interested in making the institute’s Runway program — which provides business mentoring for tech postdocs and helps them launch companies — available to master’s-level students. He wants to strengthen connections with Cornell’s schools, like Weill Cornell Medicine, Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, and possibly Cornell Law. Such partnerships could help students explore projects in artificial intelligence and other technologies, he says. "It’s not just pushing the state of the art in AI or machine learning, but how does technology fit into the broader world?"

Back when Mr. Brachman worked at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, researchers used the phrase "force multiplier" to describe how much impact each person could have. In industry, the "force multiplier" is limited, he says. "The business charter is to help the specific company and to work with the work force that you’ve hired." The group and its work stay internally focused, whereas the goal of advanced education is to train people who leave and continue influencing people elsewhere. "In academia, your job is to do multiplication of your forces outside the specific institution," he says. "I hope I will learn new ways to be effective and to multiply my impact and the impact of the institute." —Angela Chen

An Activist Returns

Ben Siegel, Ohio U.
Margaux Cowden
The four years Margaux Cowden spent as a visiting assistant professor at Williams College coincided with an ardent, at times angry, on-campus debate about sexism, racism, and free speech. Her students in the gender-studies department were among those leading protests to try to block provocateurs such as John Derbyshire, the incendiary former National Review columnist, and Suzanne Venker, an antifeminist author, from speaking at Williams.

Ms. Cowden, who spent her own undergraduate years as an activist firmly allied with the cause of free speech, did not always agree with her students’ tactics. But she found herself increasingly drawn to the work of providing emotional, not just intellectual, support to young people on campus.

So when she learned last spring of an opening in administration at Ohio University, her alma mater, Ms. Cowden was eager to shift her energies. In August, she joined the Athens, Ohio, institution as director of its Cutler Scholars Program, which provides financial aid and summer enrichment for a small group of students recognized for their leadership abilities.

"I was never the kind of scholar who felt like I was going to make some field-changing contribution," says Ms. Cowden, who received her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine before teaching stints at Temple University and Williams. "The work I do teaching, and the work I do with students, feels to me like it’s more challenging and interesting at a base level."

The program she will lead is modeled on prestigious merit-based programs like the Jefferson Scholarships at the University of Virginia and the Morehead-Cain Scholarships at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ms. Cowden plans to teach colloquia for the scholars, develop stronger relationships with pipeline high schools, and help enhance the program’s emphasis on collaborative leadership and community service.

For that, she will be able to draw on her own undergraduate experience. As a student, she co-founded the campus Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, served as women’s-affairs commissioner for the Student Senate, and was a member of a group called Swarm of Dykes that, in the 1990s, led debates on transgender inclusion.

"There is always a significant conversation happening here," she says. "I’m not sure yet what the current one is, but I look forward to finding out." —Caroline Preston

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