Deborah Estrin Biography

December 6, 1959 Los Angeles, California

Computer scientist

Courtesy of Deborah Estrin.
Estrin, Deborah.
Courtesy of Deborah Estrin.

Deborah Estrin is a pioneer in the development of a revolutionary technology called embedded networked sensing, or ENS. ENS involves the use of tiny, acutely sensitive monitoring devices that can "read" their surroundings, picking up extremely detailed information. When networked together—in other words, when the sensors can communicate with each other—and when embedded, or planted, in a particular environment, these sensors can not only pick up information, but they can also analyze and relay it back to scientists. If planted in a bridge or a building, sensors might convey information about the structure's soundness, pinpointing any weak areas that need reinforcement. Sensors embedded in a forest might gather information about the amount of water and nutrients in the soil as well as the eating habits of nearby wildlife.

Named as one of the "Brilliant 10" in Popular Science magazine's list of elite researchers, Estrin is the director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) as well as a professor of computer science at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Her involvement in ENS has put her at the forefront of a burgeoning technology that could radically transform society. Just as the Internet connects a virtual world of computers and databases, a vast network of embedded sensing devices could serve as a communications system for the physical world, connecting streams of information about waterways, air, plant life, the animal kingdom, human-made structures, and far more. The full potential of ENS has yet to be completely explored.

"Estrin ... wants to connect us to the physical world as intimately as the Internet connects us to one another."

Laurie Goldman, Popular Science, September 1, 2003

A life of learning

Born in Los Angeles in 1959, Estrin was raised in a household that placed a premium on learning. Her parents, Thelma and Gerald, were professors in the computer science department at UCLA, and both earned PhDs in electrical engineering. This was a notable accomplishment particularly for Estrin's mother, since relatively few women earned PhDs during the early 1950s, especially in scientific fields. "I was very fortunate," Estrin related in an interview with U•X•L Newsmakers, "to be surrounded by academics and role models, and to have a professional mother and a feminist father." She went on to explain that she and her two sisters, Judy and Margo, knew that their parents valued "education, career, having an impact in the world, [and] intellectual growth." All three girls took those values to heart; in addition to Estrin and her groundbreaking research and university teaching, Judy is a successful entrepreneur, while Margo is an accomplished physician specializing in internal medicine. Estrin's own intellectual curiosity has been passed on to the next generation as well: her teenaged son, Joshua, is interested in physics and nanoscience, the study of the world on a molecular or atomic scale.

From the time of middle school, Estrin focused intently on her studies, concentrating especially on science and technology. She also loved math, studying the subject at an advanced level from the seventh grade on. She knew as a child that she wanted to invent things. After graduating from University High School in West Los Angeles, Estrin earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1980. She went on to earn a master's degree in technology policy from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1982. Three years later, Estrin completed the PhD program in computer science at MIT.

After graduating from MIT, Estrin headed back to the West Coast to begin her teaching career. During 1986 she accepted a position as professor of computer science at the University of Southern California (USC), where she taught and conducted research until 2000. In 1987 she won the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), for her research on computer networking and security issues. From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, Estrin focused her research on designing network and routing protocols for large global networks like the Internet, essentially exploring the ways information is transmitted over a massive network of computers.

Special sensors

In the late 1990s Estrin turned her attention to the field of embedded networked sensing, and began to explore some of the possibilities for such devices. At the heart of an ENS device is a microprocessor that is about the size of a die-cast toy car such as those made by Hot Wheels. A microprocessor is at the core of any number of high-tech devices, from computers and cars to cellular phones and digital music players. The ENS microprocessors are combined with collections of various sensors. These might include a device to detect sound or motion or to determine chemical composition, or perhaps a video or infrared camera that can capture images that are outside the spectrum of colors visible to the human eye, such as body heat. The microprocessor, in effect, translates the information picked up by the sensor and allows scientists to make sense of it. These wireless sensing devices, when spread over a large area, can transmit information to the scientists monitoring them and, perhaps more significantly, can be instructed to send information only when a specified event of interest occurs.

Embedded networked sensors could have a multitude of uses. Food manufacturers might use them to monitor shipments of their products, determining their location and making sure they are being kept at the proper temperature. The potential applications in the medical field are numerous, including a sensor-embedded bandage that might signal doctors that a patient is developing an infection. Sensors embedded throughout an airplane might identify possible structural problems that could be fixed before the plane ever leaves the ground. At a 2002 seminar at the University of California at San Diego, Estrin suggested some of the possibilities of ENS to her audience. The Web site of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology quoted from Estrin's lecture: "Imagine high-rise buildings in downtown Los Angeles that could detect their structural faults, then alert authorities on corrective action.... What if buoys along the coast could alert surfers, swimmers, and fishermen to dangerous levels of bacteria?"

Deborah Estrin, holding up a sensor node. Courtesy of UCLA Today. © The Regents of the University of California.
Deborah Estrin, holding up a sensor node.
Courtesy of UCLA Today. © The Regents of the University of California.

Inspiration in a rain forest

During 1999 Estrin vacationed in Costa Rica, home to lush tropical rain forests. She was awed by the abundant animal and plant life in the rain forests and by the admirable focus of the Costa Rican government and people on preserving their country's biodiversity. Estrin realized that biologists could radically improve their ability to observe complex biological phenomena by using embedded networked sensors. Upon returning from Costa Rica, Estrin began to focus on the impact ENS could have on the study of biology, the environment, and other natural sciences. Among many other uses, ENS could help scientists track and monitor the impact of climate change on endangered ecosystems—a community of organisms and the surrounding environment—and could provide detailed information about the type and level of contamination in the soil or air. In 2000 Estrin left USC to become a professor of computer science at UCLA. As with all scientific endeavors, Estrin's research in the field of ENS depended on funding to carry it from the planning stages to actual testing of the sensing devices in the real world. Soon after joining the faculty at UCLA, she and several colleagues from UCLA, USC, and other universities began working on a massive grant proposal that would give them the funding they needed.

During August of 2002, Estrin and her colleagues heard the news they had anxiously awaited for many months, news of a grant the likes of which most scientists can only dream of: the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Science and Technology Center awarded them a ten-year, $40 million grant to develop ENS technologies for the study of physical and biological systems. The grant allowed for the establishment of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS), and Estrin was named the center's first director. Based at UCLA, CENS was one of six academic research centers to receive the 2002 NSF grant, which specifies that the work must be collaborative, involving people from various fields of study. Estrin's center includes professors from a number of different departments at UCLA and other universities, including computer science, electrical engineering, biology, and education. In exchange for the grant money, the research centers must commit to conducting their primary research, and to advancing educational opportunities in local schools and universities and increasing the number of minorities participating in the research. They must also connect with other research institutions as well as the business world and the surrounding community. CENS was ready and able to fulfill the many requirements, and work soon began on developing the initial programs for testing ENS technology.

Ecosystems and beyond

One year later, in August of 2003, Estrin and CENS began their first large-scale study of an ecosystem in the James Reserve, a protected area in the San Jacinto Mountains of southern California. The study will eventually deploy approximately one hundred sensing devices embedded over a thirty-acre wooded area. As Laurie Goldman summarized in Popular Science, "video cameras will watch bluebird nests, motion detectors will sense predators, and buried CO 2 probes will monitor soil chemistry." The study will focus on the impact of short-term changes in the microclimate—the climate of a small area—on plants and animals. The sensors will be set to detect such things as the movement of water through the soil and the growth patterns of various types of plants and trees. The ENS devices are also being used to track the feeding and reproduction habits of several species of birds in the area. In keeping with their commitment to make the data they gather accessible to the public, the scientists at CENS arranged for the results of the study to be available on the Internet at

Estrin and her colleagues have also experimented with embedding sensors in buildings and other human-made structures to gather information about earthquakes. These sensors can detect seismic, or earthquake-related, activity, and can measure the impact of such activity on a building, indicating strengths and weaknesses. Scientists hope that in the future such sensors could help prevent a building's collapse during a disaster. Seismologists, scientists who study earthquakes and related activity, know that during a strong earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, a number of skyscrapers collapsed because they were vibrating exactly in tune with the earthquake. In the long term, embedded networked sensors have the potential to structurally alter a building, essentially "detuning" it, giving it a better shot at surviving an earthshaking disaster. Another early project headed by Estrin has involved the use of sensing devices for soil sampling in order to measure contaminant levels. Sensors could also be used to measure water contamination from industrial waste or other sources, zeroing in on the source of the problem in order to resolve it efficiently. In the world's oceans and coastal waterways, sensors could detect the presence of harmful microorganisms, like certain types of algae or bacteria, before the damage from such organisms becomes too great.

Ultimately, as Estrin described to Newsfactor Innovation, she envisions ENS as an ever-present technology: "In the long term, embedded networked sensing systems are likely to be in the car you drive to work; in the roads, embankments and traffic lights by which you drive; in the parking structures; in complex environments like hospital rooms; as well as outpatient monitoring setups in the home." To establish and then maintain so many sensory networks will require the cooperation of experts in a number of fields, from computer science and engineering to mathematicians, biologists, and information scientists. Estrin has recognized the importance of involving social scientists, legal experts, and others who can explore the potential impact on society of such in-depth monitoring. The widespread use of sensors in the future could raise important issues of privacy, such as sensors that might enable governments or other institutions to gather detailed information about the lives of private citizens. While a great deal of research and testing must take place before the full potential of ENS can be explored, Estrin has a notion of the technology's nearly limitless possibilities, and her role in the realization of those possibilities is a critical one.

For More Information


Fulford, Benjamin. "Sensors Gone Wild." Forbes (October 28, 2002). Goldman, Laurie. "Deborah Estrin." Popular Science (September 1, 2003): p. 84.

Huang, Gregory T. "Casting the Wireless Sensor Net." Technology Review (July 1, 2003): p. 50.

Mervis, Jeffrey. "Research Centers: Science with an Agenda." Science (July 26, 2002).

Web Sites

"Biography." Center for Embedded Networked Sensing. (accessed on August 2, 2004).

Hamilton, Michael. "Making Sense of Nature." James Reserve. (accessed on August 2, 2004).

McDonough, Brian. "Networked Computer Sensors Infiltrate Everything." Newsfactor Innovation. (accessed on August 2, 2004).

"New Center for Embedded Networked Sensing Will Use Wireless Technology to Create Wide Array of Sensor Systems to Monitor Environment, Buildings." UCLA News. (accessed on August 2, 2004).

"UCSD-TV and SD Telecom Council Team on New Program about Telecommunications." California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. (accessed on June 21, 2004).


Additional information for this profile was obtained from a personal interview with U•X•L Newsmakers (August 3, 2004).

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: