Build Your Career: Interviews 


BIO: Dawn Song

Dawn Song, an associate professor in computer science at the University of California Berkeley, recently won a coveted MacArthur Award for her work in protecting computer systems from malicious software, or malware. The MacArthur Foundation cited her work in investigating the underlying patterns of computer system behavior applied across whole classes of security vulnerability. For example, the BitBlaze binary analysis program developed at Berkeley under her leadership works something like biological defenses against infection, scanning and analyzing binaries of vulnerable software and malicious code, then automatically identifying the root causes of the attacks to generate defenses. In this interview with the IEEE Computer Society’s Dick Price, Dr. Song talks about her journey from her native China, to Tsinghua University, to a classroom and lab at Berkeley, and now to the MacArthur prize.

 

MacArthur Award for Computer Security Specialist Dawn Song

Dick Price: Today, I’m talking with Dawn Song, an Associate Professor at Berkeley in Electronic–Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a recent winner of a McArthur Award. Dawn, could you describe the work that led to this award?

Dawn Song: My area of research is in Computer Security and Privacy. That work ranges from developing techniques and tools for protecting hosts from malicious code attacks, to also designing new techniques in cryptography for protecting users’ privacy. It’s a fairly broad range.

This award is a great opportunity for me to do the type of work that I really want to do, but otherwise may not be able to. For example, I think it will enable me to take unconventional approaches in my work that otherwise may be difficult to do.

DP: What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing with the computer security work right now?

DS: Security is a fascinating field. It’s also very complex. I’m hoping that in my future work, we will develop better techniques and tools for not only just to better defend against the malicious code attacks, and also to actually develop better tools for people to build secure systems much more easily than what’s available today, and also to make it much easier for users to use a system more securely. These are the main challenges that I’m addressing.

DP: When you were a youngster, what factors drew you to the career path you ultimately chose?

DS: My career path is a little different than the typical path. Even though I’m doing computer science now, when I was an undergrad, I did physics. I got my physics bachelor degree in China at Tsinghua University. Then I moved to the United States and switched to computer science, where I ultimately pursued the academic path and became a professor.

I have always been very curious about things. I always have very broad interests. And I just find the work fascinating really.

DP: Who or what had the most influence on you during your college and graduate school days? Was there one particular mentor that pointed you in the right direction?

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DS: Many, many people have helped me in my career path. It’s always been great working with my students, collaborators, and colleagues—so many friends. If I had to pick one person, I think actually it might be is my high school teacher. His influence made a big difference in what I have done.

In China, when you graduate from high school and go into college, you have to declare your major. Before you take the national actions exam, you have to say what you want to study. At the time, I had always been good at math and physics. But I was actually fascinated by the interplay of light and shadow. So, actually, I wanted to go into photography.

But then my mom, you know, as a classic Chinese mother, sometimes they want to make sure that their children will be well to do. She wanted me to go into business. But my high school teacher, he told me that you should go into science. He saw my talent.

He said, I really think it would be the best for you to go into science. Later on, if you decide you want to do other things, science is a great way to build up your foundation and train your way of thinking. Later on, if you want to do other things, you can still switch.

I eventually took that advice and went into physics. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I did not take that advice.

DP: As you moved through your career, was–what was the smartest decision you ever made?

DS: When I decided to switch from physics to computer science. I always loved physics. And I actually still do, but for me personally, that move was great in that I can probably contribute more in computer science than if I had stayed in Physics.

DP: What advice would you give for a recent graduate, who wants to pursue a career something like yours?

DS: One thing that really draws me is curiosity. There are so many things in life that are really fascinating. My curiosity has really helped me in my life and in my work. It makes life more fun to and makes work more fun. That’s one thing.

Another thing is that I really like challenges. One advice I would give to the recent graduates is that you should try to put yourself in a place that will challenge you, because only that way you can grow the best.

DP: In your field, either in computer security or computer science generally, what do you think will be the most startling advance or change we’ll see in the next five or 10 years?

DS: In computer security, over the past decades now, our understanding of security has improved tremendously. There will still be new things and new attacks coming out. And there are still, you know, new things that we cannot foresee, but at least I think we are getting a much better understanding of the problem domain. The entire field is making fantastic progress in designing new techniques and tools to help people build more secure systems, write more secure code, and also design systems that are easier for users to use in a secure way. Also, I have always been fascinated by how we can make computers do great things that maybe, for example, like things that the brain is really good at, but computers cannot do well yet. Given the progress that we have had, both in terms of hardware and also in terms of our understanding of how computer algorithms and systems work, I think we will see tremendous progress building even more intelligent and more powerful computers.

DP: You’ve been involved in the USENIX Security Symposium and IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. What role do professional associations like the Computer Society or USENIX play in your career?

DS: Oh, they have been tremendously helpful. I try to contribute back to the community, for example, by serving program committees and some program co-chairs. I’ve also been participating in various diversity workshops to help more junior students figure out what’s the best way for them to grow and learn.

DP: Thanks so much, Dawn. Good luck with the MacArthur money.

 

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