CyLab UBRI honorees make a splash in research-driven blockchain innovation

Michael Cunningham

Nov 27, 2023

Decorative image featuring headshot photos of Ariel Zetlin-Jones, Elaine Shi, and Eugene Leventhal

From left: Ariel Zetlin-Jones, Elaine Shi, and Eugene Leventhal are CyLab community members who have recently been honored by Ripple's University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI)

Ripple launched the University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI) in 2018 to foster collaborative partnerships with leading universities globally to support academic research, technical development, and innovation in blockchain, cryptocurrency, and digital payments.

In the five years since, Carnegie Mellon University faculty members, students, and alumni have made a big impact on UBRI’s diverse portfolio of blockchain research, technical development, and innovation.

“UBRI has been a cornerstone of our university-wide blockchain initiative, and their support has really catalyzed cross-campus blockchain research and curricular collaborations between faculty and students,” said Ariel Zetlin-Jones, associate professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business.

Zetlin-Jones, co-director of the CMU Secure Blockchain Initiative, was recognized as UBRI’s 2022 Educator honoree in the category of Courses, primarily for his work in the class “Developing Blockchain Use Cases,” which he co-developed and co-teaches with Elaine Shi and Mike McCarthy.

Through the course, students have an opportunity to propose and develop applications or use cases for a campus blockchain. Along the way, they learn practical development skills in distributed ledger technologies (DLT) to understand blockchain programming and application development.

In addition to his teaching, Zetlin-Jones regularly presents to U.S. representatives as a DLT expert, and he was a featured speaker on the topic of Liquidity Provisions in DeFi Markets at last month’s UBRI Connect conference in Toronto.

“Economists well understand that when people have differences of opinion about the value of assets—such as cryptocurrencies—there might be gains to reallocating those assets to the people who most value them,” said Zetlin-Jones during his UBRI Connect presentation. “Our research provides a new, fundamental framework to evaluate methods to create liquidity that supports this type of exchange natively on blockchains.”

Shi, co-director of the CMU Secure Blockchain Initiative, was similarly recognized in 2022 as the UBRI Innovator honoree as a professor for her breakthrough research in the sector. Shi’s renowned research in cryptography, game theory, algorithms and foundations, and blockchains was cited by UBRI during its presentation of the honor, particularly her work on scalable large-scale consensus and incentives.

“I was attracted to doing blockchain research because of the exciting technical challenges that lie at the intersection of cryptography, distributed systems, and economics.,” said Shi, associate professor in CMU’s Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments. 

As a featured speaker at UBRI Connect 2023, Shi presented “Unveiling the Future: From Theory to Transformation with Oblivious RAM.” During her presentation, Shi described how Oblivious Ram (ORAM) evolved from a theoretical concept to large-scale, real-world deployment, shared strategies for constructing ORAM, and talked about ORAM applications and challenges to deployment.

“Do you need trusted hardware? If you do, you likely need ORAM. It pretty much goes hand-in-hand with Intel SGX and other trusted hardware,” said Shi during her UBRI Connect presentation.

CyLab’s most recent honoree at the 2023 UBRI Awards is Eugene Leventhal (HNZ ‘19), a Master of Science in Public Policy and Management alumnus from CMU’s Heinz College of Information Science and Public Policy. Leventhal is the recipient of the 2023 UBRI Legend award, presented to UBRI alumni that are currently working and thriving in the field of blockchain technology. This year’s awards were presented at Ripple’s annual UBRI Connect, and the judging panel saw over 35 nominations in only eight categories.

Photo of the 2023 UBRI Legend award, presented to Eugene Leventhal

“It’s always just nice to be recognized for any kind of existing work,” said Leventhal. “It was a very unexpected thing and I received word of the honor on a very stressful day, so it was a nice little thing to put a smile on my face at the end of the day.”

Leventhal expressed an interest in blockchain and web3 technologies as a Heinz College student, leading the CMU Blockchain Group student club as its president. Upon completing his graduate studies in 2019, Leventhal began his career in the blockchain space as project and partnerships manager for CyLab, where he supported partnership discussions and events for the Secure Blockchain Initiative. He then moved on to the Smart Contract Research Forum (SCRF), a startup organization dedicated to advancing web3 through research and knowledge-sharing, where he served as its operations lead and, later, executive director.

Today, Leventhal serves as the interim executive director of the Metagovernance Project, an interdisciplinary research collective that builds standards and infrastructure for digital self-governance.

“Being at CMU gave me the room to really just play around with different ideas and get a better flavor for what research-oriented paths into the blockchain space look like,” said Leventhal. “It showed me a lot of the potential rigor toward going into this space from the right angles, and it was really exciting to get to build off of that.”

In May, CyLab hosted Carnegie Mellon’s first-ever Secure Blockchain Summit, bringing together experts from around the world to share their research and discuss the future of the technology and its applications.

The two-day event featured five sessions, including talks and panel discussions focused on topics such as cryptoeconomics, applied cryptography, programming languages, policy and regulation, ethics and equity, and more.

Check out the CMU Secure Blockchain Initiative to learn more about CyLab’s innovative blockchain research.