10 out of 200: Crossing the gender minefield – Tayyaba Nafees makes our internet safer

Meet Tayyaba Nafees, computer scientist and one of this year’s 10 out of 200 young researchers participating in the 6th Heidelberg Laureate Forum from September 23-28, 2018.

Photo courtesy of Tayyaba Nafees

What is your name and nationality?
I am Tayyaba Nafees from Pakistan.

Where did you study and where are you currently based?
I did my BSc in computer science at Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, Pakistan, my MSc in software engineering from National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Pakistan and then won a Global Development Scholarship to do MSc in software engineering from the University of Bradford. I have recently received my PhD from Abertay University, Scotland.

What is your current position?
I am starting my journey as an entrepreneur, applying my PhD to commercially promising cybersecurity innovation, using expertise out of the university laboratory and spinning it as a commercially viable product to solve real industrial cybersecurity problems. Recently, I secured a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship 2018, which will help me to turn my promising science and technology researcher qualities into a successful entrepreneurship.

What is the focus of your research? What is your research project?
Insecurities in software development practices happen due to lack of awareness of up-to-date cybersecurity issues which create vulnerabilities that can potentially be exploited by malicious hackers. My research has developed a usable knowledge transfer technique called “Vulnerability Anti-Pattern” to bridge this knowledge gap and help the software industry to develop the skills to create secure software systems.

Why did you become a computer scientist?
My ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning to solve complicated problems led me to become a computer scientist. The field of computing gives me the inspiration to cross the gender minefield and extend my natural problem-solving abilities. The sky is the limit for my enquiring mind to look ahead in the field of Cybersecurity.

What are some of the fundamental challenges you have faced in your academic career?
I do not fit the common stereotype of a software engineer and ethical hacker as I am female and Muslim and come from a ‘developing country’. It has been challenging to be accepted into the cybersecurity community which is heavily male-dominated and, in the UK, there is a close social community and a strong drinking culture associated with people studying and working in this line of work.
Starting my career in software engineering at home, I also faced societal disapproval and resentment for breaking out of religious and traditional social expectations. My father has always been supportive but the overall society in Pakistan is not as liberal in its mindset.
In order to overcome many of these challenges, I made the active decision to go abroad to further my education in the United Kingdom which brought its own challenges. I worked hard to secure scholarships to help fund my education. In doing this I have also had to fight the social stigma of being a single woman, travelling, living and studying without male supervision. Such challenges give me the motivation to keep moving on with an optimistic attitude.

What do you feel are the greatest pressures facing scientists today?
The radical pace in which the world and technology changes means that it is hard to keep up.
Not every country is at the same stage of scientific development, or acceptance (political or religious).
Cybersecurity is also a very secretive world. Although there is a ‘world-wide web’ every country has different laws and standards regarding cybersecurity and privacy. It is hard to merge all the research from around the world with these local restraints.

What are you doing besides research?
I am a good squash player and play within Dundee University women team. In addition, I love to explore nature and take my time out to do mountain hiking in the beautiful Scottish hills.

How did you hear about the HLF and why did you apply?
I got an email from ACM regarding the HLF. Being a young researcher in the field of cybersecurity, the HLF is a great venture for me to enlarge my contact network by meeting, not only, the laureates but also a large number of motivated young researchers in computer science and mathematics. Engaging others with my captivating, personal accounts is an invaluable endorsement via HLF.

What do you expect from this meeting?
Through the HLF, I will get the exclusive possibility to profoundly connect with my scientific role models such as Jeffrey A. Dean and Butler W. Lampson. I want to find out how these laureates made it to the top of their fields. HLF is a launchpad to collaborate with other influencing young researchers. HLF Forum will help me to learn how to be a better scientist and global contributor, ready to take on humanities’ grand challenges.

Which laureates present at the forum would you really like to talk to and what do you want to ask them?
I would love to have a chat with Whitfield Diffie, Jeffrey A. Dean, Butler W. Lampson.
My question for Butler W. Lampson and Jeffrey A. Dean: How can artificial intelligence techniques and cybersecurity information merge to solve inherent cyber-attacks and security issues? How can this help software developers to design a secure system?

Who were your most important mentors and what lessons did they pass on to you?
Professor Daniel Neagu, University of Bradford, Dr. Natalie Coull, Abertay University and Prof. Dr. Shoab Ahmad Khan, NUST, Pakistan. I was most struck that all of them advised me that I should enjoy my journey as a researcher. There is always a fear of failure but if you can turn your fears into a positive energy that is key to success. The important lesson I learnt is to have patience and be consistent to get successful results.

After being confronted with stereotypes and social expectations for so many years, what would you recommend young people feeling the same pressure to do?
Always remain true to your passion, no matter the barriers. Have faith in yourself and believe in your abilities. Use your cultural resources to help you when you are feeling challenged. Don’t stop as hard work is a key to success.

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Jens-Steffen Scherer is a neuroscientist, science communicator, and moderator. Besides pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Oldenburg, he works for the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik) and the Südwestrundfunk (SWR). In 2018 Jens-Steffen won the 8th Science Slam of Oldenburg. LinkedIn

1 comment

  1. Although there is a ‘world-wide web’ every country has different laws and standards regarding cybersecurity and privacy.

    Insbesondere auch in Pakistan, wie natürlich auch in der BRD.
    Das Web ist allerdings nicht staatlich zuverlässig regulierbar, der Nutzer kann sich sozusagen immer frei machen von Bedrängnis.

    Dr. Webbaer (der unterstellende Fragen der Art ‘After being confronted with stereotypes and social expectations for so many years […]’ nicht so-o gut findet)