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Five years on, remembering professor Gaetano Borriello

Gaetano Borriello portrait

February 1 marked five years since the passing of professor Gaetano Borriello. Gaetano famously applied to only one program – ours – when he entered the academic job market in 1988 after earning his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He spent the next 27 years on the Allen School faculty, six of those valiantly fighting the cancer that would eventually take him from us. Gaetano is one of several leaders, and dare we say, legends, whom the Allen School community lost in the last decade. As a new decade dawns, the memories of those who knew and worked with Gaetano haven’t faded.

“We continue to feel Gaetano’s loss every day. When I moved into the director’s office last month, one of my first thoughts was that now I will be near Gaetano’s bench, which is just across Sylvan Grove from my window,” said Magdalena Balazinska, professor and director of the Allen School. “It makes me feel like Gaetano is still with us — and I do believe his wisdom and compassion continue to influence our decisions and actions in a very positive way.

“It’s not the same without Gaetano,” she continued, “but we will continue to build upon his legacy by working to create a more inclusive community here within the Allen School and pushing state-of-the-art technologies to benefit people and communities around the world.”

Here, members of the extended Allen School family pay tribute to a friend, mentor and colleague whose presence is still very much felt by members of our community — and whose impact endures both here on campus and across the globe.

Gaetano’s vision:

Four Ph.D. students in robes and caps with Gaetano Borriello
Gaetano (center) poses with newly-minted Ph.D. graduates (left to right) Brian DeRenzi, Benjamin Birnbaum, Yaw Anokwa, and Carl Hartung

“Not all research ideas go beyond the lab, so it’s a testament to the power of Gaetano’s vision that the tools he created are in active use in every country in the world,” said Allen School alumnus Yaw Anokwa (Ph.D., ‘12), who worked with Gaetano on the Open Data Kit project and continues to support the deployment of ODK via his company, Nafundi.

“I wish he could see how much impact he has had, and I wish I could still ask for his guidance,” continued Anokwa. “I miss him. A lot.”

“Gaetano stands out to me as a visionary and as an educator,” said professor Richard Anderson of the Allen School’s Information and Communication Technology for Development Lab, which is building on Gaetano’s legacy in ICTD research. “He was able to look 10 years ahead and develop high impact applications of emerging technology, and he loved to recount all the times people told him his approaches would never be practical.

“Throughout his career, he put students above all else,” Anderson continued, “both as an advisor and mentor of graduate and undergraduate students, and as a teacher in Computer Engineering.”

Gaetano’s humanity:

“I knew Gaetano from my role as technical staff at CSE, overlapping with him for almost two decades,” said Scott Rose, who retired from the Allen School in 2015. “Gaetano was an exceptionally smart engineer, but what made him stand out from the crowd were his humor and his humanity — he was a genuine man of the people, without an arrogant bone in his body and with no appetite for status. He just wanted everybody to have the opportunity to do their best, to live with dignity, and he’d bend over backwards to make sure they did. 

“Students at any level, staff, colleagues — they were all part of Gaetano’s community of peers,” Rose continued. “I hope that I make my exit with the same dignity that he did. I miss him greatly, and at his advice, yeah, I get my regular colonoscopies.”

Gaetano’s devotion to students and staff also stuck with Crystal Eney, Director of Student Services at the Allen School.

Crystal Eney and Gaetano Borriello in front of Drumheller Fountain
Crystal Eney (left) poses with Gaetano in front of Drumheller Fountain on the UW Seattle campus

“Gaetano was thoughtful, warm, passionate, entertaining and extremely student-focused. He always put students’ needs first. He was their advocate and their mentor. He would give them tough love when they needed it, but he was also a great listener and problem solver,” recalled Eney. “It wasn’t just the students who looked up to him — it was the staff, too. He treated us like equals, and was always there to say ‘good job’ or ‘nice work.’

“In this day and age when everything seems to move at lightning speed, Gaetano was one of those people who would stop by to ask how your day was going, and it wasn’t just a mindless pleasantry,” she noted. “He cared deeply about others, and he is so very deeply missed.”

Gaetano’s relationship with staff was such that he could bring people back into the fold after they had left — in the case of Kay Beck-Benton, the Allen School’s director of external relations, eight years after.

“I loved working with Gaetano,” said Beck-Benton, who started at the Allen School as a program manager before leaving UW for a series of startups. “So much so, that he is a major reason why I returned to — and currently work in — the Allen School. Gaetano was an advocate and mentor for staff and for students, as well as being passionate about research and teaching.

“No matter who you were or what position you held in the school, Gaetano made you feel welcome in his circle,” she concluded.

Gaetano’s mentorship:

Given how devoted he was to students, it is no surprise that mentorship and setting students up for success would be a recurring theme for those who remember Gaetano. 

“If you asked Gaetano what should be the UW’s top priority, he would have one answer: the students,” said Allen School Ph.D. candidate Waylon Brunette, who began working with Gaetano as an undergraduate researcher nearly 20 years ago. “His focus and dedication to students pervaded his views on education, research, and service, and he measured his own success based on his students’ success.

“Gaetano was great at finding students who might have a few rough edges, like me, and helping us to realize that we were actually diamonds in the rough,” Brunette continued. “Mentoring was fundamental to who Gaetano was as a person, and I have tried to model my own mentorship on his shining example.”

Melissa Westbrook and Scott Hauck
Melissa Westbrook (left), Gaetano’s widow, recognizes Scott Hauck with the Gaetano Borriello Professorship for Education Excellence

This sentiment was echoed by another former student, Scott Hauck (Ph.D., ‘95), who now holds the Gaetano Borriello Professorship for Educational Excellence in UW’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

“I know that advisors can have a big impact on people’s careers, but Gaetano was truly a role model to me,” Hauck said. “I saw in him someone who combined impactful research, careful mentoring, and a passion for education, and have tried to be as graceful and compelling a faculty member as he was. I often think about what Gaetano would have done when trying to structure my own teaching.

“I also try to put the students first, just as Gaetano did for me,” Hauck continued. “And I do still find myself wandering over to Sylvan Grove to sit on Gaetano’s bench sometimes and commune with him a bit.”

Gaetano also served as a mentor and role model to his faculty colleagues — whether intentional or not.

“Out of everything I can think of that has made me a better mentor and advisor over my 17 years at UW, being next door to Gaetano’s office for about five of those years, in a building with fairly thin walls, is near the top of the list,” observed professor Dan Grossman, vice director of the Allen School. “When I needed thoughtful advice on something, I would ask Gaetano. Nowadays, I try to guess the advice he would give me if he were still here.

“Gaetano was the full package — an excellent researcher who evolved his focus over his career, a gifted teacher, an award-winning mentor, and always one to carry more than his share of service,” Grossman continued. “He was also humble, self-aware, and grateful — a true role model for me and many others.”

Gaetano’s legacy:

Gaetano Borriello wears a trash bag to protect his clothes from cream pie
Gaetano’s affection for students extended to willingly taking a pie in the face at the ACM spring picnic

Gaetano’s ability to educate and inspire those around him ensures his legacy will endure beyond the impact of the technologies he created. It’s a legacy that his former students and colleagues aim to expand through their own work.

“I would not be where I am today without Gaetano. As I learn how to advise Ph.D. students myself, I become more and more grateful for the incredible advocate and champion that Gaetano was for me, and for all his students,” remarked Allen School alumna Nicola Dell (Ph.D., ‘15), who is now a faculty member at Cornell Tech.

“I can’t believe that he has been gone five years,” she said. “I also can’t count the times I’ve wished I could call him up and ask for his advice. He is truly missed. I hope every day that he would be proud of the work we continue to do, that he continues to inspire.”

“Gaetano’s impact is felt every day, at UW and around the world,” said professor Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering in the Allen School. “Scott Hauck, who was advised by Gaetano and his close colleague Carl Ebeling, now holds the Gaetano Borriello Professorship for Educational Excellence at UW. Open Data Kit, a project Gaetano launched with several of his students, sees ever-expanding adoption for mobile data collection around the world — an expansion supported by Nafundi, a company co-founded by two of Gaetano’s former Ph.D. students, Yaw Anokwa and Carl Hartung. And ODK-X is building on that legacy, guided by Gaetano’s faculty colleague Richard Anderson and alumni who previously worked with Gaetano.

“Other alumni have gone on to faculty positions at other universities, where they are building on Gaetano’s legacy in technology for development,” Lazowska continued. “Gaetano may not be physically with us, but five years on, he is everywhere.”

Following Gaetano’s passing, tributes poured in from colleagues and collaborators around the world, including primatologist and wildlife conservationist Jane Goodall, the International Red Cross, IEEE, PATH, and others. Read more here.