Women in STEM with Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham
The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force presents Women in STEM, with Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham, Founders Chair Professor of Computer Science and the Executive Director of the Cyber Security Research and Education Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD).
Bhavani has worked in integrating Cyber Security and Data Science field since Fall 1985, and has had a very productive career at Honeywell, MITRE, NSF and then at The University of Texas at Dallas.
We are humbled to have had the opportunity to discuss professional growth, characteristics that enable that growth, and advice for overcoming personal and professional obstacles with Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham.
What is your current technical field and what made you choose that particular area of interest?
My current technical field is integrating Cyber Security and Data Science. I have worked in this field since Fall 1985 (when they were called Computer Security and Data Management). How I got into this field is a long story. I got married at 20 as I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Math and Physics at the University of Ceylon (now Sri-Lanka) in 1975 and my husband was finishing his PhD at the University of Cambridge, England. I followed my husband and completed my graduate education at the University of Wales and the University of Bristol in the UK in Theory of Computation. We moved to the USA (New Mexico) during the Summer of 1980 and my son was a baby at that time. While I was offered a tenure track position at New Mexico Tech, I chose a visiting faculty position as I felt it would be less difficult for me to cope. During the summer of 1981 we moved to Minneapolis and after two years as visiting faculty at the University of Minnesota, I joined Control Data Corporation as a senior software developer working in networks and distributed systems. I was continuing to do research at home in theory of computation as well as at the University of Minnesota in distributed systems as an adjunct faculty. Then I got the opportunity of my lifetime. Honeywell had written a proposal to the Air Force for a Secure Database system project and they were looking for a qualified person with US citizenship. I had just applied for my US citizenship and then in Fall 1985 it all came together and I got the job. That’s when I started my work in computer security and data management. Since then I have had a very productive career at Honeywell, MITRE, NSF and then at The University of Texas at Dallas. So, I have been working in the field for the past 35 years.
What’s been your greatest challenge and your greatest reward in your professional career?
Like many ambitious and persevering people, I have had to deal with quite a few challenges over the past 35 years. Initially it was about excelling at work and at the same time being a good mother. I took up this challenge and tried my best by enlisting the support of close friends and colleagues who helped me a lot. With respect to professional challenges, my managers at Control Data and Honeywell in Minneapolis were very supportive and encouraged me to be the best I could. With the experience I had at these two companies, I was ready for the challenges that were before me at The MITRE Corporation in Bedford, MA as they had a long tradition of technical excellence working with various government agencies in a multidisciplinary environment. During my time at MITRE and with the encouragement of my managers and colleagues, I formed a strong support group of women researchers and professors. As they were all ambitious and determined like me, we supported each other in any way we could. My third challenge was moving from MITRE to academia via an IPA at the National Science Foundation. After a 24-year career I took an opportunity to work at UT Dallas as a tenured professor in October 2004. While I had initiated many projects at MITRE and worked closely with my colleagues in a cordial and cooperative way, the professional environment in academia was based on what can be achieved as an individual while also working with fellow faculty members in multidisciplinary teams. My experience at MITRE enabled me to form closely knit teams that could excel collectively. I was fortunate that the administration at UT Dallas supported me in hiring two excellent junior faculty working in my field. Together with these two faculty hires I formed a team with an assistant professor already working in data science. Our nascent team of four worked very well together and soon we collectively obtained funding which enabled us to add new faculty with additional skills to develop a very strong research and education program in cyber security and data science. Overcoming these challenges enabled me to thrive in my career, and subsequently mentor junior researchers and seeing them succeed has been my greatest reward.
How did your professional journey begin?
I have already provided some information about my professional journey when discussing why I chose my current technical field. For the most part, my professional and personal lives are closely intertwined. I am a Tamil of Sri-Lankan origin. I studied Math and Physics for my undergraduate degree. My strongest supporter and motivator was my mother who wanted to pursue a Math degree herself but had to stop her schooling to get married. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree, my maternal uncle arranged my marriage (because my father had passed away), although I had a choice. So, I joined my husband in the UK and got my graduate education in Theory of Computation. We moved to the USA in 1980 as soon as I finished my PhD and I had a baby son at that time. So, after taking visiting faculty positions for three years first at New Mexico Tech and then at the University of Minnesota, I then worked as a software developer for a few years for Control Data Corporation. I got my lucky career break in 1985 at Honeywell to work in cyber security and data science in 1985. Since then I have had a very rewarding career at Honeywell, MITRE, NSF, and at UT Dallas. My objective has always been to maximize all the opportunities in front of me and along the way I have built a very strong support system consisting mostly of women professors and researchers.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a young person just starting out in their career?
As I have stressed in my answers to the different questions, a support group consisting of women and even a few men who are favorable to women succeeding in the workplace is a must. Every young professional, especially a woman, needs mentors to guide them so that they not only survive in the real world but also thrive. As I have mentioned, my career has had a lot of variety and I have taken advantage of all the opportunities I have been given. I was also fortunate to start my career in 1980 at a time when Computer Science was in its infancy and so one could afford to try out different types of jobs such as working in the industry as well as in academia. While there are numerous opportunities for computer scientists today, the competition is also extremely tough. Therefore, one has to be focused on one’s career from Day One. This is not easy when you have to balance between career and family. However, there are many more opportunities now for good childcare and you can also do lot of the work from home which I could not back in the 1980s and 1990s. Today one may not be able to take detours in one’s career. That is, be focused and motivated, work hard, be passionate about what you do, cultivate relationships and have mentors. Also, if you want to become a senior executive in a company and get into senior administration at a university, then you have to be focused, start early and learn to be a leader at a younger age. When I started my career there were hardly any female role models, but today there are quite a few. From that point of view the younger professionals now are more fortunate. So, in summary, if you ask me what is the most important piece of advice I can give a younger person just starting out, I would say just one word–FOCUS.
How did you decide to pursue a career in your current professional sector (academia vs. industry vs. government)?
In developing my career over the years and trying to balance my family life with my career, I have been very fortunate to have had the best of all worlds. When I finished my PhD, I really wanted to have an academic career. But it took me 24 years to achieve my dream and along the way I had such a varied career experience that is priceless. Once I turned down the tenure track faculty position at New Mexico Tech by choice in 1980, I knew it was not going to be easy getting into academia. Nevertheless I really started enjoying my work as visiting professor for three years, and then a career in industry for six years where I learned a lot about product development and technology transfer, and then a career at MITRE, a federal research lab for 13 years, where I learned a lot about government-funded research and development projects as well as becoming an advisor to the government and transferring the technologies to operational systems. Then there were three years as a program director at NSF where I was part of a team determining strategic directions for research and funding priorities and finally a tenured professor position in academia. Throughout my 24-year journey in industry and MITRE I continued to publish papers in top tier venues even through it was not mandatory at work. I have enjoyed every minute of this varied career and have learned so much–not just to do good research but also to work in teams, be a leader and a mentor.
What are the unique qualities or characteristics that you have brought to your career and workplace?
First, I will discuss what it takes for a successful career for a woman and then describe the qualities I bring to the workplace. Of course, hard work is most important for a successful career. But hard work, while necessary, is not sufficient. There will likely be unexpected obstacles that could derail one’s career. So, one has to develop a strong support system. That means nurture relationships with colleagues as well as with potential mentors who will be there for you. Another very important quality is to never give up. That is, one must be motivated, develop a passion and love for work and do the best every day and take advantage of all the opportunities that are offered to you and in many cases go after the opportunities that you believe will make you happy as well as advance your career. Another important quality is good organization skills. As women we are drawn in many directions and therefore, we have to train ourselves to manage time efficiently and be organized. Over the years, by working in a variety of jobs in the industry, federal lab, government and academia as well as forming a strong support group, I have developed many of the qualities needed for a successful career. I also understand what it is like when you start your career. Therefore, in addition to the vast experience, one of the unique qualities I bring to the workplace is teamwork and mentorship. I am passionate about mentoring junior faculty and researchers as well as women and seeing them thrive in their careers. I also advise my junior colleagues to never give up and to always be positive about work. As a professor I have worked hard to recruit qualified female students and I am pleased that more than 66% of my PhD students to date are either female or from the underrepresented minority communities. Finally. I would like to add that those of us who have sons and grandsons have to work hard to make them realize that women are just as good as men in handling high powered careers. This has to be instilled into them at an early age so that the next generation of women will benefit. Diversity education cannot start in high school, college or in the workplace; it has to start in the cradle.
What’s your best advice for women who have become discontent with their careers yet are afraid or reluctant to make a change?
It is not difficult to get discontented with one’s career for many reasons including boredom from doing the same thing, workplace politics, low salary increases and family pressures. And, it’s not easy to function in a male-dominated world. The main question you have to ask is: do you love your work? Because if you really like what you are doing, then some of the irritations in the workplace can be overcome. However, if you don’t, or the irritations at work become unbearable, then you want to think seriously about making a change. Even a temporary change like going to an agency in Washington DC such as NSF or taking a sabbatical working in the industry can really rejuvenate you and completely change your attitude towards your career. Although there aren’t many career counselors in our line of work (e.g., academia, research career), it would still be good to talk to people and get different perspectives. I cannot overemphasize the need for a strong support group to discuss the issues and challenges at work. What you must not do is let the situation fester as it will only make it worse. Therefore, I strongly recommend making a change even temporarily and get rejuvenated. It is also very important to have the support from your life partner otherwise it makes it that much harder.
Who is one female role model who you personally admire and why?
As I mentioned, when I started my career back in 1980, there were so few female role models. I would like to say my mother was my role model as she was so strong and hard-working. But professionally I would say that Prof. Marion Pour-El at the University of Minnesota was my role model. I joined the university as a visiting faculty in Fall 1981 and did research with Marion. I was 26 and she was around 52 at that time. Her husband was also a researcher and a professor and she had one daughter who had just finished college. Marion was a strong, brilliant woman. I worked with her for two years and learned a lot. In addition to working hard she said you have to go after the things you want. She believed that marriage, motherhood and career were all equally important for a woman and encouraged me not to try and do a balancing act. That is, she said you have to organize your life in such a way that you have to develop both a personal and professional support system to help you at home and at work. In the beginning it was not easy for me but eventually I listened and followed her advice and I believe that helped me a lot not only in my career but also in my personal life. I mentor a lot of junior researchers–both women and men. I give the same advice that Marion gave me, especially to the women. Many of them have thrived in their careers and also have solid marriages and that gives me great satisfaction.
What have you found rewarding about being an IEEE and/or Computer Society member and/or volunteer?
I have been a member of the IEEE Computer Society since 1986 and IEEE since 1997 (when I became a Senior Member). The initial benefits I got from IEEE CS were huge. I learned a lot about the field from the Computer Magazine, the various transactions as well as the high-quality conferences. I was quite active with the society for several years and 1997 was a significant year for me as that’s when I got the IEEE Computer Society’s 1997 Technical Achievement Award at the IEEE COMPSAC conference. I believe I was the first woman to receive this award (although there was also another woman who got it the same year but at a later date). I was also invited to serve on the IEEE CS Conferences and Tutorials Board that year and subsequently served on other committees such as the Awards Committee for several years. I was rewarded for my work by becoming an IEEE Fellow in 2003. I continue to chair conferences and in April 2020 we organized the first virtual IEEE ICDE Conference for 2000+ participants. I have found every bit of my time with IEEE for the past 34 years extremely rewarding and it has helped me to grow professionally.
Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham is the Founders Chair Professor of Computer Science and the Executive Director of the Cyber Security Research and Education Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD). She is also a visiting Senior Research Fellow at Kings College, University of London and an elected Fellow of the ACM, IEEE, the AAAS, the NAI and the BCS. She was a Cyber Security Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation in 2017-8. Her research interests are on integrating cyber security and artificial intelligence/data science for the past 35 years (it used to be computer security and data management/mining/expert systems). She has received several awards including the IEEE CS 1997 Technical Achievement Award, ACM SIGSAC 2010 Outstanding Contributions Award, the IEEE Comsoc Communications and Information Security 2019 Technical Recognition Award, the IEEE CS Services Computing 2017 Research Innovation Award, the ACM CODASPY 2017 Lasting Research Award, the IEEE ISI 2010 Research Leadership Award, the 2017 Dallas Business Journal Women in Technology Award, and the ACM SACMAT 10 Year Test of Time Awards for 2018 and 2019 (for papers published in 2008 and 2009). She co-chaired the Women in Cyber Security Conference (WiCyS) in 2016 and delivered the featured address at the 2018 Women in Data Science (WiDS) at Stanford University as well as keynote addresses at Cyber-W 2017 and 2020 (Women in Cyber Security Research), 2019 Women in Communications Engineering (WICE), and 2018 Women in Services Computing, and serves as the Co-Director of both the Women in Cyber Security and Women in Data Science Centers at UTD. Her 40-year career includes industry (Control Data, Honeywell), federal research laboratory (MITRE), US government (NSF) and US Academia. Her work has resulted in 130+ journal articles, 300+ conference papers, 150+ keynote and featured addresses, six US patents, fifteen books as well as technology transfer of the research to commercial products and operational systems. She received her PhD from the University of Wales, Swansea, UK, and the prestigious earned higher doctorate (D. Eng) from the University of Bristol, UK.