Interview with Russ Cucina

A Conversation with Russ Cucina, Professor 

Are you following the World Cup? Other than the USA, which countries' teams are you rooting for?

Russ CucinaI haven’t followed closely but watched the USA vs. Portugal. That was amazing and gripping. The only team I have been following is Team USA, but I really do not follow soccer.

From where does your surname originate? What do you know about your family genealogy?

That is a fairly intense personal interest! Cucina is the Italian word for "cuisine" or "kitchen," an occupational surname. I have spent an inordinate amount of time researching my family genealogy on where you can find a remarkable amount of amazing information. My father knew that my grandfather, Vincenzo, came to the US from Palermo, Sicily, but didn't know when or anything about the family before him. I thought, "I work in technology and this is the age of the Internet—this is unacceptable!" So, within the first hour, I found my great grandfather's citizenship certificate , which has on it a photograph, the only existing photograph of him. I've since spent a crazy amount of time at the Mormon temple in Oakland, tracing the Cucina name as far back as the 1700s in Italy on hand-cranked microfilm machines, about as old-school technology as there is. I found the gravesite of Vincenzo and his wife, Giovanna, in Baltimore, Maryland, after my aunt sent me a hand-drawn map and, using it like a treasure map in this old graveyard, I found my great-grandparents. I've found birth and death certificates, and marriage contracts, handwritten in both Latin and Italian—documents that pre-date Italy before it became a nation in 1861, then known as Regno delle Due Sicilie or Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. I've learned a lot of Italian doing this research! On my Mom's English side, other members of the family, the Warringtons, have found family records that go back as far as the first colonists in Virginia. Knowing all this doesn't change who I thought I was but provides a sense of place and a sense of history. My work is about technology and the future, but I enjoy knowing how earlier family stories have informed successive generations and how they tie me to the past.

Vincenzo Lazzaro
Vincenzo Lazzaro


Vincenzo Lazzaro
Frederick Thaddeus Warrington


Are you an oenophile? What is the most colorful language you've expressed about a particular wine?

I love wine and enjoy mostly California red wines, and I spend some amount of time and money traveling to Napa, Livermore, and the Santa Ynez area where Sideways was filmed. I like big, tannic red wines: Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Once, in a fairly private setting, the wine tasted just like movie theater popcorn, that very particular weird taste. When I said so, the server quickly poured himself a taste, was quiet for a moment and, in disbelief, said, "You're right!"

How do you keep your hair model-perfect?

Oh, you gotta be kidding. I hate my hair; it's the same hair I've had since I was 5 years old. I'm a fortunate man because it is by and large still on my head although I'm getting plenty of sparkles in it, and I don't mind that at all. But there are other men in the division who have much stronger hair! Who could stand up to Som's hair? Som's hair had style, as does Ryan Greysen; these are guys with some seriously excellent hair.

What athletic outlet is very unlike your professional work?

I study aikido here, with a Japanese dojo that does classes for UCSF. It is precise, graceful, and very, very physical. It is full contact, even at the beginning level, so there are lots of throws and pins. After 10 straight hours of emails, I find it incredibly refreshing to go to my aikido class and have people throw me violently to the ground and then I throw them violently to the ground. "Aikido" in Japanese means "the way of harmony with energy" so there are no attacks. The idea is that rather than opposing, blocking, or overpowering an opponent, you redirect their energy in a way that neutralizes their attack. It is a useful metaphor for the challenges of life in some ways, especially interpersonal challenges so, rather than placing myself in opposition and potentially escalating a situation, I like redirecting energies into something more constructive.

Are you a complicated man?

I don't think so. I care a lot about people and that sometimes surprises people because I can be identified as the computer guy, a technophile, or someone who is oriented towards machines. I am much more oriented towards people and relationships than sometimes I give off. I may seem a little bit more formal until people get to know me. But, no, I am pretty straightforward.

Niraj claims that when you enlightened him with the power of "Alt-Tab" during your Chief Residency together, it changed his world. In all seriousness, how often do you learn something new about a computer's capabilities that change your world?

Not as often as Niraj, who has been talking about the Alt-Tab moment since we were Chief Residents 12 years ago. He didn't know how to switch applications at the time and it rocked his world. He is a serious practical joker who, at the end of our Chief Residency, made me a small "Alt-Tab" plaque that is around here somewhere.

Other than that last question, when was the last time you cringed?

Last week I was on transfer pager and, to the night falcons reading this, thank you that we are no longer awakened at night. I find transfer pager incredibly interesting because it feels like we are fulfilling the mission of the university by helping patients in the community. On transfer service, you hear these terrible stories of very sick folks all over California and we get to try to help them, something I find very compelling. This time on service, some of the patients' illnesses, and their stories, were especially moving and I remember cringing when hearing them.

Does your car reflect your personality as it is or as you would like it to?

My current car reflects one aspect of my personality because I am still driving the 12-year-old Honda Civic stick shift that I bought in grad school. It reflects the part of my personality that I inherited from my parents, which is often frugal and practical. Someday I will get a convertible because I love driving and being outdoors, and one of my meditations is to drive down Highway 1 to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I am a member. I just bought a new car but did not get my convertible because in my personal situation it would have been a terrible cliché. Silly, but true.

You have a great, hearty laugh that is contagious. What makes you laugh?

I think of myself as easily amused and I crack myself up. I like finding things funny and got my sense of fun from my parents. As the youngest of three children, I was the source of fun for everybody because I was the littlest kid.

Russ, this was so much fun. Thank you.

- by Oralia Schatzman

View Russ's professional bio | See previous faculty interviews