Natalia Stakhanova and girls in Computer Science

Natalia Stakhanova is an Assistant Professor and the New Brunswick Innovation Research Chair in Cyber Security at the University of New Brunswick. Her work revolves around building secure systems and includes intrusion detection, malicious software, and security evaluation and assessment. Natalia is the recipient of the UNB Merit Award, the McCain Young Scholar Award and the Anita Borg Institute Faculty Award. She is a co-founder and the President of CyberLaunch Academy. Natalia works closely with industry on a variety of R&D projects, and she has developed a number of technologies that have been adopted by high-tech companies. Natalia currently holds three patents in the field of computer security.

 

The CyberLaunch Academy is a non-governmental for-profit organization established in August 2016 to provide cyber education and training in New Brunswick. The primary objective of CyberLaunch Academy is to assist the province in promoting science and technology among school students, reducing gender imbalance in this field and building a high level of proficiency in computer science among its trainees. CyberLaunch Academy offers training courses and workshops for children and adults in computer coding, web design, robotics, virtual reality and cyber security.

 

Earlier this year SCWIST reached out to Natalia to ask her a few questions about her career path, and what motivated her to start CyberLaunch Academy.

What inspired you to pursue a career in computer science and cyber technology?

I never planned to be a computer scientist. In fact, for a long time I was building expertize in areas that have nothing to do with science and technology. In undergraduate school I originally pursued a law degree combined with studies in foreign languages. When I started my graduate degree I first concentrated on education. Nobody thought that I would ever become a computer scientist, not even my own parents.

 

Nevertheless, there is one particular experience that I think had an impact on my interest in computer science and hence my current career in this field. More than twenty years ago, while I was still in high school, I had a neighbor who had a computer and knew how to make a game run, even when the computer refused and complained about insufficient memory. For me it was beyond magic, and I definitely wanted to learn how to do it. So my neighbor showed me a couple of simple tricks and later when my parents bought me a computer he taught me coding basics. Since then I have been on the path of learning computer science. Following my parents’ plan I went to university to study law and secretly applied to the nearby computer science college. My initial intention was only to learn more about computers.

 

I never thought I would become one of those computer experts, but I vividly remember always liking to solve various computer-related problems – whether I was working toward my law degree or doing paralegal research in the district attorney’s (DA’s) office. I would probably have done well in the DA’s office since my knowledge of computers made me a very valuable staff member. But my fascination with IT and several other experiences later in life eventually made me change my career path.

 

Did you have any female role models growing up that encouraged you to consider a career in STEM?

 

There were several in my life. As funny as this may sound my first role model was Angelina Jolie… Well, not the actress, but the character in the movie “Hackers”. The movie was not a reason for me to pursue my career in computer science, but it gave me that first “wow” realization that computers were cool and that being a “computer girl” was twice as cool. I know that my little confession is likely to make some people laugh, but let’s be honest, many of us may track our lifelong affairs with our hobbies or things we do in life back to seemingly insignificant childhood experiences. In my case my experience encouraged me to learn a few simple things about computers, and then enjoy the gratification of being treated as a computer guru by my friends who knew nothing at all about computers.

 

At Iowa State University, where I was doing my MS in Computer Science, there were two other encounters with people that I may consider as role models. Both were my female computer science professors. The first one was Dr. Robyn Lutz. At the time her story really impressed me. No need to say that in someway her story resonated with my own experience. At Iowa State University I initially applied to the Department of Education. Dr. Lutz’s undergraduate degree was in English. Yet she completely turned her career around, switching her focus to computer science. She was not only a distinguished scientist, but also a leading NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher working on space missions.

 

Another person was Dr. Wallapak Tavanapong– also an internationally known scientist. All the students at our department were really fascinated with her ability to produce top quality research papers in a relatively short period of time. The experience of studying under these two professors changed my own perspective. My ambitions slowly progressed from “I wish I could be able to do things these two professors can” to “I will also be doing things they do!” Quite the role models, don’t you think?

 

What drove you to start the CyberLaunch Academy initiative?

 

I always had an interest in supporting girls in computer science. I started with occasional summer camps and free training sessions teaching girls coding and computer security.  Eventually they became so popular that I had to turn people down as I was running out of space. I felt absolutely terrible for not being able to take everyone who wanted to participate. So expanding these sessions was a very natural thing to do. The province expressed interest in supporting a computer science school if I decided to start one. That is how CyberLaunch Academy was born. I must say so far this is one of the most rewarding experiences I had in my life.

 

Why is providing girls, and boys, with this opportunity important to you?

 

Honestly, I don’t know. I have always been this way. May be it just runs in my genes. I have several generations of school teachers in my family. Since childhood I heard stories about my grandfather who became a math teacher after returning from the World War II. I grew up watching my mother working with her students. No question that being a mother of three myself, I am concerned about their education as well. Teaching my older daughter computer science was a strong initial motivating factor in teaching children. Providing boys and girls with opportunities to study computer science is only a part of that motivation to teach children. Providing this opportunity even to those who are less likely to pursue education and careers in IT is what gives me even stronger motivation to run a computer science school.

 

If you could wish for one change in your local community, what would that be?

 

I would like to see as much interest in pursuing education in science and technology in the local community as I currently see in hockey and sports. We often tend to blame government officials and/or business for creating inadequate educational opportunities for children in our communities, but it is not completely fair. If we are not actively seeking these opportunities, neither government nor businesses have incentives to provide them.

 

Do you have a message for young women and girls that you would like to share?

 

I really like what Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, once said: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on”. All the time I see girls hesitate when they are offered something new. When asked, they often confess that they probably won’t be good at it anyways. Believe me, I know how intimidating things can be, still just give it a genuine try and you will probably see how mistaken you are.

 

Do you have a message for young men and boys that you would like to share?

 

It’s only a matter of time before women will enter science and technology field at their full force. Bullying them to discourage their interest may only slow up this process. Yet if you do this you will always be seen as jerks. Instead, become heroes for girls pursuing STEM disciplines. They already have many barriers to overcome. Therefore you should encourage and support them and they will always be grateful. They will think of you as people who opened up an exciting and beautiful world of science and technology to them. I know this, because I am still grateful to that neighbor guy who gave me my very first computer lesson. I’ve met many great computer scientists – my teachers and my colleagues – who have helped me become who I am today. But reflecting back on my life I can say that I wouldn’t be here without my neighbor who shared with me his own appreciation of computer technology, who built my confidence that I – a girl – could learn computer science, and who helped me develop skills that laid the foundation for my accomplishments in this profession.