10 out of 200: The who’s who of the internet – Janelle Mason improves our cybersecurity

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Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Meet Janelle Mason, computer scientist and one of this year’s 10 out of 200 young researchers participating in the 7th Heidelberg Laureate Forum from September 22nd – 27th, 2019.

Photo courtesy of Janelle Mason

What are your name and nationality?
My name is Janelle Mason.  I am from the United States of America.

Where did you study and where are you currently based?
I studied and am currently studying at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the United States of America. Currently, I live in Greensboro, North Carolina.

What is your current position?
My current position entails being a student, where I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science. I serve in the position of the lab manager for the Raven Computer Science Lab, a leader in the Computer Aided Forensic Reasoning and Evidence in Criminal Investigation (CAFRECI) research group, and a Delegate for North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. 

What is the focus of your research? What is your research project?
A fundamental social need that has grown in importance and difficulty as societies have grown in size is the need to identify people, and this need has become the central issue in Web security. Our research addresses the principled use of information as evidence for the identity of a human agent. The person might be of interest for several reasons including investigation of crime, including cybercrime, or, more generally, identification (where we determine who it is so we may treat them appropriately) or authentication (that someone is who they say they are, generally so we may grant them the privileges they are due). In developing a computational framework for identity, we collaborate with our criminal-justice colleagues as that is the discipline that has addressed identity for centuries. Semantic-Web standards are used to define concepts used in encoding identity cases. The information thus captured allows identity hypotheses to be ranked. For biometric-based identification, metadata on such things as the current setting and the machine-learning technique used allow us to discount and combine scores from the matching programs. The linguistic nature of identity, both the descriptive and the referential aspect, is taken seriously. Referentially, the Semantic Web’s IRIs provide global names for individuals perhaps known only by their role in a situation; investigation may reveal that two such IRIs actually denote the same individual. The resources used in our framework also allow common reasoning patterns regarding the identity to be automated. The principal benefit of this research is understanding the concepts involved in our framework. A specific benefit will be a Web-based tool we are developing for criminal-justice students. More generally, our framework could be helpful for anyone, such as law enforcement, seeking an answer to “who done it” or needing to identify or authenticate agents.

Why did you become a computer scientist?
As a child, I enjoyed math, science, both playing and listening to music, completing puzzles, and playing sports. As I matriculated through school, my passion in these areas grew and flourished. In high school, I had a teacher who strongly encouraged me to pursue computer science because he could see my potential from a computer programming perspective. When I entered college, I wanted to choose a degree that would entail my passions and allow me to be creative.

Photo courtesy of Janelle Mason

What are some of the fundamental challenges you have faced in your academic career?
I always strive for perfection, meaning a 4.0 grade point average. I had to learn that sometimes you will not get an A in every course. My lessons learned have been as long as you worked hard, learned something from the course, and you are able to apply the information, that is what truly matters.
When I did not understand the information in a course, I would ask questions during and after class to my classmates, the professor, teacher assistants, etc. to gain clarity and to ensure I understood the content.

What do you feel are the greatest pressures facing scientists today?
One pressure some scientists face from a research perspective is having good research ideas, but they lack the funding to fully support the research effort. This causes some scientists to become creative to produce prototypes and/or proof of concepts to bring attention to their research ideas.

What are you doing besides research?
I enjoy mentoring and working with students. I also enjoy participating in physical activities such as doing CrossFit and swimming. I enjoy playing board and card games, ping pong, billiards, and bowling. Traveling, eating the local cuisine, and learning about the history of the destination I am visiting is something I am passionate about. I thoroughly enjoy going to a place of worship.

How did you hear about the HLF and why did you apply?
I heard about the HLF through the Computer Science Department at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University via email. I decided to apply because I believe this is going to be an extraordinary opportunity to learn and grow from a research perspective as well as gain insights from all participants.

What do you expect from this meeting?
I am interested in meeting other young researchers, learn about their research, and exchange academia experiences. I am hoping to further my knowledge with respect to computer science and to enhance my research interests.

Which laureates present at the forum would you really like to talk to and what do you want to ask them?
It would be a phenomenal honor and privilege to meet Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, Ivan Sutherland, and Raj Reddy. As Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman are the inventors of asymmetric public-key cryptography. I would ask them about their perspectives on encryption from the aspect of future technology and cybersecurity. Ivan Sutherland, the pioneer of computer graphics and the inventor of Sketchpad. I would ask him about his perspective regarding augmented reality and virtual reality. Raj Reddy, the pioneer of design and construction of large scale artificial intelligence systems and technology. I would inquire about his successful implementation of the “Million Book Project” and his perspective about how humans are embracing robots from a near and long term point of view.

Who were your most important mentors and what lessons did they pass on to you?
All of my academic advisors and professors, including my Undergraduate, Masters, and Ph.D., as well as my professional development advisors – both during internships and my career have all served as mentors.  Each in their unique way has inspired me to continue to think critically and analyze problems.
My family has served as important mentors in my life, my grandmothers and grandfathers, where they passed on the importance of being respectful, acquire your education, and to travel the world; my brother and sister (André and Rhonda, Olivia) stress how important it is to be an example because someone is always watching. Lastly, my parents, William and Jewel Mason, passed on the importance of acquiring my education and taught me to always trust in the Lord.

Besides your research, you are a passionate swimmer. Is there anything swimming and cybersecurity have in common?
Swimming compares to cybersecurity from the perspective that both consist of a team event (i.e., a relay) and an individual event, such as an individual medley (IM) in swimming. In cybersecurity, there is an importance of being able to identify vulnerabilities and knowing how to use tools to detect and discover vulnerabilities. These are some examples of an individual event. From the team perspective, it can be seen as continuous monitoring, detecting, and educating employees within a company about cybersecurity. Swimming and cybersecurity entail both a physical and mental challenge. Through years of training and conditioning, along with exposure to assessing networks and computing devices, I have been able to increase and strengthen my skill set to handle and operate efficiently during intense situations, which is applicable and necessary in both swimming and cybersecurity.

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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

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