What does it mean to use academic research for social justice and good and what are the best methods for connecting the two? This complex but important issue is what Sera Linardi is attempting to tackle through her recent appointment as Siegel Public Interest Tech (PiTech) Faculty Impact Fellow for Cornell Tech.

The Faculty PiTech fellowship, selected annually and with terms ranging from six to twelve months, provides a platform for established faculty to explore public interest technology ventures or initiatives in their teaching and research. In the four months since the start of her fellowship, Linardi has supported Cornell Tech by helping connect the academic research of the campus with the needs of the communities it serves.

Introduced in 2021 and central to Cornell Tech’s mission of incorporating social considerations into all aspects of their research, Cornell Tech’s PiTech initiative is at the forefront of a movement to build a commitment to responsible tech and public interest technology. The program, funded by David Siegel and brought to fruition by Associate Dean and Robert V. Tishman ’37 Professor Deborah Estrin, was established in recognition of the need to imbue a public interest orientation in students that they can carry into their professional lives as they pursue careers in tech.

“There are so many conversations currently about creating smart cities and utilizing tech for social good, but because so much of the focus is on academic innovation, it can be difficult for those conversations to translate to community needs,” said Linardi. “We’re attempting to answer the question of what it means to use tech for good and social justice in a university setting, connecting tech research with communities in a way that creates a practical impact.”

Linardi’s journey that led her to delve into the intersection of research and community began after she received her PhD in social science from CalTech and became a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. As a researcher in social science, she worked with nonprofit organizations like School on Wheels that didn’t have the funding to conduct statistical analytical research experiments, and she also conducted direct outreach to communities to how academia could best meet their needs.

In her position as associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, she founded the Center for Analytical Approaches to Social Innovation (CAASI), which, amidst the devastation of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and following social reckoning, offered a community for healing. CAASI began expanding rapidly, beginning as a place for meditative reflection and gradually becoming an incubator for creating practical web and data projects driven by students and created in collaboration with communities.

Linardi’s extensive work growing and developing CAASI for five years made her well-equipped to take on the role of Executive Director of Equity and Access in Algorithms, Mechanisms, and Optimization (EEAMO). A network of diverse researchers with various orientations to the intersection of academia and equity, EEAMO serves as a nonprofit organization focused on using interdisciplinary research to improve equity and access to opportunity in historically under-served communities. As Executive Director, Linardi took her work scaffolding the divide between student learning and community and translated it to connecting academic researchers and community.

“We take people who are already in the research network and help them build, understand, and integrate the perspectives of historically underserved populations,” Linardi explained. “Reaching out to people who are academically invested in their respective fields and exposing them to what communities actually need helps to create greater equity for historically underserved communities.”

Linardi’s tireless efforts in her role as Founding Director of EAAMO are helping to ensure that math, computing, and technology research are supporting the efforts of underserved communities and increasing overall equity. Cornell Tech’s PiTech fellowship has allowed her to expand her crucial work, making it more accessible to additional universities and communities. Linardi will be working within the Cornell Tech community through December 2024.