Women in STEM with Pierangela Samarati
*The following interview was originally published on www.computer.org.
The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force presents Women in STEM, with Pierangela Samarati, Professor at the Department of Computer Science of the Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy.
Her main research interests are data and applications security and privacy, especially in emerging scenarios.
We are humbled to have had the opportunity to discuss technical fields, overcoming challenges, and advice for young professionals with Pierangela Samarati.
What is your current technical field and what made you choose that particular area of interest?
My technical field of activity is data security and privacy, with particular consideration of emerging scenarios. I am investigating different issues related to the problem of protecting data, regulating their access, sharing, and release, as well as protecting sensitive and confidential information from improper exposure. Data are the lifeblood of digital economy and today’s society. We are surrounded by smart and pervasive systems, and every action we do generates data, which are collected, stored, and analyzed in the name of better services and making the systems smarter. In such a hyperconnected world, there is a clear loss of control over data flow and usage, with consequent improper exposure of possibly sensitive information. Together with my collaborators we are working on different problems related to data security and privacy. Our goal is to empower owners with control over their data, addressing not only the problem of regulating their access and sharing, but also ensuring protection against direct or indirect leakage of confidential or sensitive information. I am currently leading a EU-funded project aimed at providing technical solutions for ensuring data protection and owner control in digital data markets. What I find appealing about my area of research is that it entails several theoretical challenges, while also having practical impact that can benefit society.
What’s been your greatest challenge and your greatest reward in your professional career?
The biggest challenge has been not to get discouraged when things do not go well. As for reward, I enjoy research: when you like what you do, you just do it and it does not feel like work. That enjoyment in what you do is already a reward by itself. I find particularly rewarding when you see your work having impact, being picked up, followed and recognized by the community building on your results. Maybe less obvious or visible are little rewards of everyday life, when you achieve interesting results on hard problems, when you see you have made a difference, and when you see that your advices to young scholars make a difference in their life and you see them succeed.
What have you found rewarding about being an IEEE and/or Computer Society member and/or volunteer?
I find reward in being part of the community and helping to make things happen. Our community is a peer-based community and research activity relies in particular on conferences, journals and opportunities for researchers to share their results as well as to hear from others. Often it is not thought of it, but having these opportunities requires considerable time, effort, and energy as well as vision and competence. IEEE and, specifically, IEEE Computer Society provide these opportunities, also thanks to all volunteers (peers like us) who put in time, competence, and energy for this. As members, we benefit from the services IEEE and IEEE Computer Society offer, and I think we should also give back to the community to do our share of service ourselves. When I was a young researcher a late colleague, commenting on the difficulty in finding reviewers for journal papers, joked “I think everybody should review at least n papers for every paper they submit.” I believe there is a truth in that. Being part of a community entails also contributing to its activities and serving it.
How did you decide to pursue a career in your current professional sector (academia vs. industry vs. government)?
With respect to studying computer science, I was just following my natural inclination in choosing a field of study. With respect to working on data protection, I picked it as a topic since I found it interesting and it is a nice field where there are always new challenges that open up (due to new scenarios or changing technologies), which gives you problems to think about and investigate, so it keeps intellectual stimulation. If data protection was maybe a niche area when I started 30 years ago, it is today under attention and investigation of many researchers and touches everybody’s life.
I like the work in academia as I really enjoy the research work, finding new challenges, and addressing them, brainstorming with others, and devising solutions. What excites me about research work are the technical challenges, the intellectual stimulus of finding and solving problems and developing novel approaches to them. It is part of my life and what I am. Despite the energy and efforts you put in, it does not feel like work, since it is what you like to do. What makes me really happy is when I am able to transfer the same passion and enthusiasm to others and to the young generations.
What are the unique qualities or characteristics that you have brought to your career and workplace? (Or in your opinion, what are the unique qualities of characteristics that enable a successful (or productive) career?
I like care, attention, and rigor. My guiding philosophy has always been to try to do my best and make a difference in everything I was doing. I think we should show others what we believe in, not by words but with actions, by being the first to roll up sleeves and put in time, energy, and effort.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a young person just starting out in their career?
Look for interesting problems, think outside the box, and do things you like to do, suiting your passion and inclination. Take things seriously, commit and maintain commitment. Always do your best, do not take easy shortcuts or easy way out, put all yourself in the things you do and make sure to do always your very best. This will be the most rewarding aspect in every result you achieve.