© 2022 EPFL

© 2022 EPFL

To promote research and education in cyber-defence, EPFL and the Cyber-Defence (CYD) Campus launched in August 2021 the fourth call for Doctoral and Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship applications – A Talent Program for Cyber-Defence Research.

This month we are introducing Alessandro Stolfo, the recipient of the third CYD Doctoral Fellowship. Alessandro is in the first year of his doctoral studies in the Department of Computer Science, at the Mrinmaya's Lab, ETHZ.

How did you find out about the CYD Fellowships and what motivated you to apply?

I found out about the CYD Fellowships from my PhD supervisor professor Mrinmaya Sachan. What drove me to apply is the possibility to explore the intersection between two fields that I always considered interesting: machine learning and computer security.

What is your CYD Fellowship project about?

My project is about investigating memory retention in machine learning models for Natural Language Processing (NLP). The large language models proposed in recent years have shown impressive performance gains in several NLP tasks from sentiment classification to more complex problems like coreference resolution and dialogue generation. These improvements, however, came at the expense of interpretability and explainability, with larger and larger architectures making it increasingly more challenging to assess precisely how models learn and what information they retain from the training data. The goal of my project is to investigate when undesired information retention in language models can lead to privacy-concerning situations and analyze what can be done to mitigate this issue.

What are the advantages of conducting your doctoral project at the CYD Campus?

In my opinion, the most valuable advantage of the CYD Fellowship is the environment of the CYD Campus. The campus makes it possible to interact and exchange ideas with experienced researchers, fostering collaborations and fruitful discussions. Moreover, the additional supervision of my CYD Campus mentor, Dr. Ljiljana Dolamic, helps me get even more input and feedback on my project.

As a child, did you dream of working in cyber-defence?

Not really, as a child I was dreaming more of becoming a professional football player. However, I started being curious about computers early on and this curiosity later developed into a passion for computer science and machine learning.

What has driven you to pursue research in cyber-defence?

In this era of AI-based personalization of digital products and services we use in our everyday life, I believe that there is an urge within the research community to provide better guarantees in terms of integrity and safeguarding of personal information. I find the idea of making a contribution to improving the security of technologies used by people all over the world extremely exciting.

What is the most important lesson you have learned in your scientific career so far?

One important lesson that I learned and that I try to keep in mind is that the function describing research progress is highly nonlinear. There are days, maybe weeks during which lots of work seem to result in little or no progress and sometimes research projects can lead to a dead end. This can be discouraging, especially for a junior researcher. Breakthroughs can come suddenly and unexpectedly, but can happen only if one keeps up the hard work during the challenging times.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

During my bachelor’s program, I joined a university competition along with a team of friends and fellow engineering students. The competition, coordinated by a non-profit organization for social inclusion, had the goal of developing a technology to help people who suffer from muscular dystrophy. We presented a demo of our solution, a vocal control system able to move and recline electric adjustable beds, in front of a committee and an audience. Shortly after our presentation, we were approached by a committee member who was enthusiastic about our system and pointed out the importance of works like ours in helping improve the life of physically impaired people. When he revealed that he was the father of a child suffering from muscular dystrophy, we found his excitement about our project heart-warming. This episode motivated us to continue with the project and to pursue a collaboration with an industry partner with the goal to introduce our vocal control into the production of adjustable hospital beds.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?

Though I gave up on my dream of becoming a professional footballer, during my free time I still play football for a local team in Zurich. Other than that, I like playing the drums and reading non-fiction books.

What are your expectations about the CYD Fellowship?

Of course I hope that my research will result in a contribution helpful for the fields of NLP and computer security. In addition, I will strive to be a valuable member of the CYD Campus community, benefiting but also contributing to the stimulating research environment.

Could you share some tips with future applicants who are considering applying for CYD Fellowships?

Find the research direction you are most excited about and think of how it could fit in the CYD Campus environment. The excitement about the project you are proposing is itself an important advantage both during the application process and when actually working on the project. Make sure to communicate your ideas and plans clearly and in detail. Moreover, if some of the steps you are planning present a degree of uncertainty or might be affected by future results, be upfront about it. It is quite common for research to be result-driven and nobody expects you to know everything in advance.


The CYD Fellowships are supported by armasuisse Science and Technology.