Weaving Research and Social DNA at NYU-Poly

In a harbinger of things to come, the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) hosted a brunch late in July at MetroTech Center’s outdoor square for the departments (electrical and computer engineering, and computer science) that encompass NYU WIRELESS, a research center that combines the efforts of NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Langone Medical Center and NYU-Poly. The center has yet to be formally announced, but the initiative is an open secret among department faculty and students, who, until NYU WIRELESS is introduced to the greater public, are nurturing the social and research ties that inform strong organizational cultures. 

“I don’t really know what it’s about, so I’m curious what brings the electrical engineering and medical center together,” said Michael Trumpis, a second-year master’s student in NYU-Poly’s electrical engineering department. “And I wanted to hang out with my friends in the park,” he continued, laughing.

Theodore (Ted) Rappaport, the director of NYU WIRELESS who also holds professorships at the schools involved, is relying on the curiosity and collegiality of students like Trumpis to grow the social DNA he believes critical to the center’s success. “It’s really about trying to get the students to believe that, if they work as a team and claim NYU-Poly as well as the NYU WIRELESS brand for themselves, they're going to get better jobs,” he said. “In five or ten years, they'll be [the ones hiring] students from here."

Rappaport, who joined the NYU family last spring, was formerly at the University of Texas-Austin, which boasts an engineering school ranked eighth in the nation by the U.S. News & World Report last year. Rappaport wants to take what he learned there to make NYU-Poly’s offerings even more competitive against large, highly-ranked departments. That objective requires strengthening “research ties and [sharing] best practices among the students and departments to [develop] a research powerhouse, where our students become more aware of other parts of NYU, and become exposed to cross-disciplinary research happening within the NYU WIRELESS center,” Rappaport said. 

Spooning yogurt from her brunch plate, Virginia Woods, a visiting professor in NYU-Poly’s electrical and computer engineering department this fall, voiced support for her colleague’s goal. “This is the direction NYU WIRELESS needs to go,” she said. “I’m in biomedical engineering, so you absolutely need the contact with doctors as well as the mathematical expertise.”

Rappaport understands the importance of facilitating research and social connections between the schools and their departments and has plans to host more social and academic events, such as an annual, internationally-ranked conference, that he hopes will erode perceived barriers, such as geographical and cultural divides.

“New York, by nature, is a very atomized place,” said Dennis Shasha, professor of computer science at NYU's Courant School of Mathematical Sciences and Associate Director of NYU WIRELESS. “Everybody has their own circle, so when someone comes in and says, 'Hey, let's all dance together,' that's different, but it's refreshing." 

Brunch guest Rimma Mayzus, a sophomore in NYU-Poly’s electrical and computer engineering department, and part of Rappaport’s research team, thinks events like Saturday’s brunch are an invaluable part of the Institute’s involvement with NYU WIRELESS. "It's really exciting to sit down with people you know and talk about what you're working on in a more relaxed environment,” she said, seated among labmates enjoying the ice cream on offer. “Sometimes when you're in a less formal setting, that's when the better ideas come out."

NYU-Poly president Jerry Hultin, seconded the possibilities that social events raise for scientific and technological advancements. “As a rule, if you don’t do cross-collaboration between different disciplines, you don’t make the big breakthroughs,” he said.

And informal events may lessen the anxiety that some feel in settings like the classroom or conference hall. “There’s no performance requirements here other than being able to hold a fork,” said Dr. Marc Bloom, director of perioperative technology at NYU's Langone Medical Center, and a faculty member in NYU WIRELESS.

As students and faculty dropped in and out of the brunch, partaking of iced coffee, eggs, or bagels before stopping to sit with colleagues new and old or to take an impromptu juggling lesson from Shasha — “All computer scientists either juggle or play squash,” he joked — doctoral candidate Tingting Lu reflected on how different her experience at NYU-Poly was from the school where she received her master’s degree. “Here it is more like you are working as a team,” she said. “It’s much better than working alone.”