A sneak peek at a few new faces

Welcome Brandon Reagen and Carla Gannis

With more than a dozen new faculty members due to arrive in Brooklyn in the fall, NYU Tandon is set to become an even more dynamic and diverse place than ever. They hail from all over the world, have a wide variety of research interests, and are finding the answers to some of the most fascinating questions in the world. How can we develop more power-efficient computer architecture? What kind of digital art results when you cross Hieronymus Bosch paintings with emojis? Tandon students will soon be finding out for themselves.

Performance, power, and energy efficiency

Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Brandon Reagen still sometimes marvels at just how many things have to go right when we sit down at a computer and how many individual electrical signals must be coordinated for today’s chips, which constitute billions of transistors, to process the ever-expanding mass of information passing through digital systems.

“Despite the great strides computing performance has made since its beginning, the industry has now hit something of a wall,” he explains. “It is no longer sufficient for computer designers to think just about organizing transistors for performance but also for power and energy efficiency. The devices of modern computing systems are now physically constrained by power dissipation to the point that the only way to build faster processors is to propose more power efficient designs. This makes it a very exciting time to work in computer architecture, as many of the techniques proposed over the last decade need to be rethought; we can’t keep doing what we’re doing and expect to meet new challenges.”

Reagen – who earned a doctoral degree in computer science from Harvard in 2018 and undergraduate degrees in computer systems engineering and applied mathematics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 2012 – focuses on creating specialized hardware accelerators for applications like deep learning. He believes the future of computing depends on these accelerators as the specialized hardware can be made orders of magnitude more efficient than general purpose platforms like CPUs. Enabling accelerators requires changes to the entire compute stack, and to bring about this change, he has made several contributions to lowering the barrier of using accelerators as general architectural constructs, including benchmarking, simulation infrastructure, and System on a Chip (SoC) design.

“My aim is to develop ways in which we can run expensive applications, for example, massive neural networks, cost-effectively and efficiently, anywhere, from massive servers to smartphones,” he says.

A former research scientist on Facebook’s AI Infrastructure Research team, he is also deeply involved in studying privacy. “There’s a paradox involved,” he says. “We reveal a lot of our personal information for the privilege of using the internet, and we want all the services we’ve come to expect, but at the same time, we would like to retain some semblance of privacy. The question now is how we, as engineers, can help strike that balance. To me this is the great question facing the computing world and a problem I am eager to work on at NYU.”

Reagen, who has lived and worked in the Boston area his whole life, is looking forward to teaching in Brooklyn, and he wants his prospective students to know that anyone can succeed in what might seem to be an intimidating field if they put in enough effort. “I’ll be right there helping them,” he promises. “They just have to work hard, be creative, keep an open mind, and dedicate themselves to problem-solving.” He also wants them to be open to collaboration. “Next-generation computing will only come about with a lot of teamwork,” he asserts, “and that means physicists, hardware specialists, theoreticians, and others all working together.”

Immersed in art

To visit Carla Gannis’s website is to become immersed in a world of riotous color and movement – a veritable carnival of drawings, animated GIFs, 3D-printed sculptures, augmented reality experiences, and much more. 

She explains that in her artistic practice, she takes a horror vacui approach, abjuring empty spaces, and she culls inspiration from a wide variety of sources, including networked communication, art and literary history, emerging technologies, and speculative fiction. “We now take in so much media – and at such a rapid rate,” she says. “My work is inspired by that phenomenon, but at the same time, it’s also a critique.” 

Gannis has spoken and exhibited her pieces at such august institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, Hudson River Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Hermitage Museum, and her work has appeared in such major outlets as Wired, FastCo, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. 

A new industry professor in the Department of Technology, Culture, and Society's Integrated Digital Media program, she will be teaching an undergraduate prototyping course, as well as a graduate-level course on virtual reality that she’s named in honor of Ivan Sutherland, widely considered the father of computer graphics, who wrote a seminal 1965 essay titled “The Ultimate Display,” in which he describes “a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. . . . With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.”

Gannis – who served as the assistant chair and an assistant professor in the Department of Digital Arts at Pratt Institute before joining the Tandon faculty – expects the graduate course to provide historical context for current work in VR, a look at the theoretical applications of the field, discussions of its implications, and new ways of looking at a project from different perspectives. “It won’t be just sitting and listening to lectures.” she stresses. “Students will definitely get their virtual hands dirty.” She hopes they’ll have fun while doing so. “I think it’s possible to approach a project with both seriousness and a sense of enjoyment,” she asserts.    

She exhibits the same passion and enthusiasm for teaching as she does for creating her own art. “I’ve been an advisor and educator for several years, and my door is, quite literally, always open to my students,” she says. Gannis remembers her own student days with a small measure of rue. “My father worked in computer graphics, so I rebelled and studied classical painting,” she recalls. “I’m glad that he set out a path for me, though, and I did ultimately come around.”