Expanding Minds and Networks: Justin Cappos Joins NYU-Poly

Sure there are many attractions in the computer science department at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), but professor Justin Cappos, who recently joined its faculty, has the kind of draw that can make his former students switch coasts. That’s what happened when Monzur Muhammad decided to join the graduate program at NYU-Poly after finishing his studies at the University of Washington where he was a student of Cappos's. 

Cappos’s interest in collaborating with students goes beyond the field of computer science: senior Fraida Fund, who will graduate with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering next spring, is an active contributor to Seattle, the open source, peer-to-peer educational cloud computing program Cappos helped develop more than three years ago. "He's a great mentor," she says.

Muhammad agrees, explaining how Cappos always pushes his students to aim for top-tier conferences when submitting papers. "It makes us strive for the best," says Muhammad, ambition evident in the way he characterizes the goals of the Seattle project: "We want to use the entire Internet as a test bed."

Shaded by a Single Cloud

Cappos rephrases the objective a bit more modestly: "What if we could take end-user devices everywhere and essentially make them into a big cloud?" The effort would require fewer data storage centers, and there are suggestions Seattle could slow the number of them in development. Already the program has 1,000 registered developers and 4,000 users representing schools from around the world — from Austria to Massachusetts and British Columbia. That diversity is the best aspect of the Seattle project, says Muhammad. "Particular universities tend to teach particular ways," he says. "With Seattle, the more universities participate, the more we get to feature different ways of learning things."

"You also get to use resources from different universities," adds Fund.

Her practicality displays a characteristic of NYU-Poly and its students that Cappos believes matches his methodology. Says Cappos, "I look at a pragmatic problem, figure out how to solve it, deploy a solution that people in the real world will use and then learn from that to find other things to work on."

Aiming for Impact

According to Cappos, academics traditionally gravitate toward problems that are "intellectually deep," whereas industry practitioners focus on market share. Skype, for instance, zeroes in on differentiators like call quality to distinguish it from competitors, though entry points for malicious cyber activity, such as software updater packages — "Those notices that pop up on your screen to let you know that you need the latest version of Skype or Firefox," explains Cappos — may be deserving of more attention. With 24 such updater programs featured on PCs, Cappos believes there are "huge potential problems" for computer scientists to tackle, and part of what excites him in his work, which focuses on the security and efficiency of real world systems, is identifying and troubleshooting those areas overlooked by academia and industry. "You can have much more impact that way," he says.

Halfway through his first year at NYU-Poly, the military-vet-turned-professor is already changing the lives of some students, Fund being only one example. Although the senior has received advice that it could be advantageous for her to pursue graduate studies outside of the Institute (and with the recent recognition Fund received as an honorable mention in 2012 Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Awards conferred by the Computing Research Association, she's a strong candidate for graduate programs nationwide), she's adamant about staying put. "There's a really great group of supportive faculty here," says Fund. "This is an exciting place to be."