Michael Waxman-Lenz

Technion Trailblazers: Israel Cidon on Academic Collaboration Across Borders

At a time in academia when so much divides us, we need to remember the power of our collective innovation when we come together – across cities, countries, and even continents. Cornell Tech is a prime example of collaboration between academic institutions on opposite sides of the world. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Israel Cidon, Director of the Joan & Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, to talk about the importance of international partnerships in catalyzing scientific advancement.

Throughout my career in both the private and public sectors, I’ve learned that collaboration is key to success. In our conversation, Israel showed me that the same is true at Cornell Tech.

Michael: You’ve been such an incredible ambassador for Israeli innovation and technology throughout your career, and you’re now serving as Director of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech. I’d love to hear more about this groundbreaking partnership.

Israel: Thank you for the kind words, Michael. It’s hard to believe how much Cornell Tech has accomplished in a little more than a decade. In 2010, New York City took a bold step in transforming S.T.E.M. education, seeking proposals from prestigious institutions around the world for a new or expanded applied sciences and engineering campus. Cornell University and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology decided to combine our globally-renowned research prowess and partner on a proposal.

Out of the 18 proposals received, the city selected us, and Cornell Tech was born. We’re now home to almost 50 faculty members, more than 100 doctoral students, and about 500 master’s students, all sharing our campus on Roosevelt Island. And the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute facilitates many of our transdisciplinary research and graduate programs that we’re known for – centering industry-focused “hubs” and addressing society’s most pressing socioeconomic needs.

This groundbreaking institute was brought to life by a generous $133 million gift from Dr. Irwin Mark Jacobs, Founding Chairman and CEO Emeritus of Qualcomm, and his late wife, Joan Klein Jacobs, who recently passed away. We offer the Jacobs family our deepest condolences, and we will ensure that Joan’s memory lives on in the scientific breakthroughs made possible by her dedication and commitment to academic achievement.

Michael: I was so sorry to hear about the loss of Joan, a revolutionary global philanthropist, but what an incredible legacy she leaves behind at Jacobs. It’s so inspiring to see two academic powerhouses coming together across more than 5,000 miles for the greater good of society. How does this dedication to partnership impact the day-to-day happenings on campus?

Israel: Partnership truly is the core of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute and Cornell Tech. Our mission is advancing technological breakthroughs for the wellbeing of people across diverse communities. We strive to live these values authentically at our institution.

Professor Thijs Roumen’s Matter of Tech lab really embodies this collaborative spirit. Thijs is dedicated to making digital fabrication, an essential component of 3D modeling and computer aided manufacturing, more accessible for everyone in order to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration. He sees a future for academia where collaboration trumps competition, and professors can work together, regardless of affiliation, in the name of scientific progress and innovation.

And Thijs extends this ideology to his mentorship, accepting students into his lab from Cornell, the Technion, and other institutions around the world. Take Ofer Berman for example – after completing his PhD with Professor Ezri Tarazi at the Technion, he’ll now be working with Thijs as a post-doc fellow.

Michael: It sounds like Ofer is in good hands, and I can’t wait to see what they accomplish together. With the success of Cornell Tech, do you think these types of academic partnerships will become more common in the future?

Israel: I hope so! Collaborations are complex, and it can take a long time to build lasting relationships. Both institutions need to develop a significant amount of trust before moving forward on a joint project. But Jacobs demonstrates that global academic partnerships are not only possible, but worthwhile.

PhD graduates, like Ofer, are already benefitting from the opportunity to complete their post-doc fellowships at Cornell Tech. Israel has so much to offer our young minds, but we’re stronger when we come together.

Michael: I completely agree. It’s so important for Israel to stay connected with other countries around the world, especially when so many forces support isolation instead.

Israel: Exactly, it’s no secret that Israel is a hub for scientific innovation. We’ve earned our designation as Start-Up Nation, and we’re one of the global leaders in tech. But it’s important for any small country to understand its limitations and collaborate accordingly. When countries come together to leverage their individual strengths, a higher level of collective success is inevitable.

Academic partnerships, like the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, allow Israeli post-docs to travel abroad and learn from global leaders in their fields. Our new Jacobs plan is particularly special because researchers, like Ofer, with family ties in Israel can conduct a portion of their post-doc period remotely from home. The flexibility of our model further increases access to international mentorship from researchers at top universities.

This experience is invaluable. When these post-docs return to Israel, they bring with them a wealth of newly acquired skills and knowledge – a solid foundation for a long and successful career in academia. If Israel is to maintain its impressive level of tech innovation for generations to come, we must support and embrace transnational programs, now more than ever.

Michael: The shared campus on Roosevelt Island must also be a unique incubator for global relationship building.

Israel: Of course, our U.S. partners at Cornell Tech have the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest scholars Israel has to offer, including global leaders in Israel’s robust health tech community. While there’s an obvious scientific benefit to our collaboration, there’s also a major cross-cultural benefit. Cornell Tech students and faculty constantly tell me that this cultural exchange is one of the most fulfilling aspects of life on campus.

Michael: And I’m sure Jacobs has already sparked some research partnerships between U.S. and Israeli professors too.

Israel: These multinational collaborations are some of our most exciting research projects. Wendy Ju, a professor at Jacobs, and Avi Parush, a professor at the Technion, have been working together to improve self-driving cars. We all know that humans don’t always act rationally, but the AI systems that operate autonomous vehicles struggle to capture these social aspects of driving behavior.

Wendy and Avi have been inviting individuals to partake in virtual reality driving simulations that capture user decisions and behaviors in both New York and Haifa. Then, they’re using this social data to train AI systems, allowing self-driving cars to account for human behavior. These are the types of research collaborations happening every day at Cornell Tech.

Michael: If I’m ever in a driverless taxi, I’ll be sure to thank Wendy and Avi for keeping me safe. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of learning about new tech coming out of our institutions. These advancements truly make it feel like anything is possible.

Israel: I think that’s another benefit of academic partnerships – this meshing of minds. There are so many problems that initially seem too massive or impossible to solve. However, when we work together with a common goal, the impossible suddenly becomes possible. Our collective whole is greater than the individual parts.

Michael: Do any examples immediately come to mind?

Israel: Again, I think of the impact that AI is having on our society. While the possibilities with AI are endless, we also need to understand how to control this new technology. This is a daunting task, but one that is necessary for the safety and security of people all over the world. Many AI systems are like a black box. We don’t fully understand them because the model learns from the data used to train it. We end up with a decision, but we don’t always know why that decision was made.

This is an incredibly complex problem – one that is too difficult for any scientist to solve on their own. Yet, Stav Cohen and Ben Nassi are working together on this monumental task. Stav is a Ph.D. candidate in the Technion’s Faculty of Data and Decision Sciences who started working with Ben, a post-doc at Cornell Tech, during a summer research internship. Together, the pair are joining forces to understand AI’s vulnerabilities in order to prevent malicious actors from exploiting AI and lobbying cyberattacks in the future.

Michael: I love to see a summer internship turn into a long-term partnership. What does their research look like in practice?

Israel: Specifically, they have created the first GenAI worm in the safety of a lab environment. This worm can spread among AI ecosystems without requiring any clicks and is capable of stealing data, spamming email, and deploying malware. Now, the research team is aiming to understand the mechanisms that make this worm so deceptive and difficult to detect. They’ve come together preemptively to fight the cyberattacks of tomorrow.

Michael: I’m glad to hear we have such promising progress in understanding AI systems because scientific advancement is only as powerful as the knowledge and tools we have to harness it. I’ve enjoyed our conversation so much, but do you have a final message you’d like to leave with readers?

Israel: Thank you for having me! As a concluding thought, I’d like to reemphasize Jacobs’ mission of advancing technological breakthroughs for the wellbeing of people across diverse communities. It is truly powerful to rise above the noise and come together for societal good.

Michael: It’s always a pleasure connecting, and I know we’ll be in touch again soon!

About the Author
Michael Waxman-Lenz is the CEO of the American Technion Society. He joined ATS from the private sector as the CFO before entering the executive role in 2019.
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