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Professor Jennifer Rexford of Princeton University visited the CIT last week to address Brown CS and deliver the thirty-sixth lecture ("Hitting the Nail on the Head: Interdisciplinary Research in Computer Networking") in the Distinguished Lecture Series. Expanding on the metaphor of hammers (the honed skills of researchers in established disciplines) and nails (interesting and important problems), she took her audience through what she described as a career in rethinking the foundations of how we manage networks, through the entire "control loop" of measurement, analysis, and control.
Working chronologically, Rexford looked closely at three example projects: optimization theory to derive distributed network protocols, composition of network policies, and traffic monitoring in network hardware. In the first section, an offhand remark that "for some reason, it wasn't obvious at first that network protocols should be solving a well-defined problem" brought knowing laughter from the audience, and they listened carefully to comments on topics such as the new understanding of modularity's importance in networking and the need to favor the concrete instead of the abstract and design iteratively.
At the end of the lecture, offering best practices and "hard-won" lessons learned, Rexford struck a balance between caution and enthusiasm. "Real problems are often interdisciplinary," she said, explaining that interdisciplinary work and its striving for impact can be intellectually exciting and enjoyable, but also dangerous for junior collaborators who haven't mastered their own hammer. Her advice? Start with your hammer: "It's easier for a programming languages person to learn part of networking than a networking person to learn programming languages." Join an emerging community, she recommended but be careful not to be too late, and seek out collaborators who are physically proximal, stay engaged, and have similar values.
We caught up with Professor Shriram Krishnamurthi after the lecture. He says, "Jen Rexford, or 'J-Rex' to her friends and admirers, is an awesome creature of prodigious powers. Whenever she arrives at a new networking problem area, weak ideas and poor foundations tremble before her might. Her oeuvre is characterized by beautiful and powerful results, but unlike a T-Rex, she also deserves credit for her open mind and welcoming nature, which has made the networking tent a lot larger than it might otherwise have been."
Fittingly, the final note of the lecture was a positive one as Rexford praised networking's important, real-world challenges and intellectually rich space of problems: "The Internet is still in its infancy and we need to create systems worthy of the trust we place in them....There's a grand challenge across fields if we can reach across the divide."
A recording of the lecture is available here.
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