© 2024 EPFL

© 2024 EPFL

To promote research and education in cyber-defence, EPFL and the Cyber-Defence (CYD) Campus will launch on 31 May 2024 the tenth call for Doctoral and Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship applications – A Talent Program for Cyber-Defence Research.

This month we introduce you to Francesca Falzon, a CYD Postdoctoral Fellowship recipient in the Applied Cryptography Group at ETHZ.

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

Having completed two internships in Zürich during my PhD, I knew that the computer security research community in Switzerland is vibrant and exciting and something that I wished to be a part of. I loved the work I had done during those internships and I wanted to continue fostering my research collaborations in Zürich. The CYD Fellowship offered such an opportunity – and more – so it seemed like a perfect fit.

  • What was your CYD Fellowship project about?

My CYD Fellowship project is focused on the secure outsourcing of data. Nowadays, it is very common to outsource data to a third-party cloud service. Nevertheless, we may not want to share our sensitive data with said third-party. I seek to build and analyze cryptographic solutions that enable a client to encrypt their data, securely outsource it to the cloud, and then later privately query that data. The goal is to design solutions that are efficient and near-term deployable, whilst still ensuring query and data privacy to the client.

  • What were the advantages of conducting your master thesis project/doctoral project/post-doctoral project at the CYD Campus?

Conducting my postdoctoral project at the CYD Campus has provided me with numerous advantages — most important of which includes a network of smart and motivated people with whom I can collaborate. I get to discuss my work with my CYD mentors, other CYD fellows, and academics outside of my host institution. Beyond that, my fellowship has provided me with many resources to facilitate my research.

  • Did you as a child dream of working in cyber-defence?

I always loved math and science, and I knew from a young age that I wanted to do something science-related in my career. It wasn’t until I read Digital Fortress by Dan Brown in high school that I realized that cryptography was a possible career path. Reading this book planted a seed in my mind — I knew that if I ever had the opportunity to study cryptography, I would take it. Fortunately, I was able to take an “Introduction to Cryptography” class in the final semester of my math degree and I never looked back.

  • What is driving you to pursue research in cyber-defence?

With the ubiquity of the internet, data mining, and the consequent increase in data breaches, it feels like our data privacy is being threatened at every turn. I feel strongly about the fact that people should have control over their data and who they choose to share it with. To that end, cryptography endows us with tools to strongly protect our data whilst still ensuring its utility, and I feel very fortunate that I can do my part to contribute to this line of work.

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

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned on my academic journey is how to tackle large-scale projects in a sustainable way. Research projects take time – sometimes even years – and it is important not to feel discouraged when you are not making significant progress in the span of a few days or weeks. I’ve learned to break down larger goals (e.g., publish a paper) into smaller, achievable tasks (e.g., read these two related works, formalize this definition, etc.). By setting myself short-term goals, I feel secure in the knowledge that I am always taking “baby steps forward” and ultimately contributing to my longer-term goals.

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

I had a rather un-traditional start to my computer science career; I initially thought I wanted to study medicine and spent the first two years at university studying biology. Despite this, I managed to pivot to math in the last two years of my studies. After a gap year in which I took additional course work and gained experience doing research in computer science, I was ultimately accepted to a PhD program to study cryptography.

  • Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?

When I’m not doing research, I enjoy cooking with friends, going for walks around the city, and exploring Switzerland. I also love languages and am always in the process of learning a new one — I had previously studied some Italian and French, and now I’m working on my German.

  • What were your expectations about the CYD Fellowships?

Through the CYD Fellowship, I hoped to do exciting research and get the opportunity to interact with researchers across academia, government, and the private sector. In addition, I thought it would be a great way to connect with other early career researchers interested in cybersecurity and cryptography. The fellowship has indeed delivered on all accounts, and I am excited to continue my postdoctoral journey as part of the CYD Fellowship cohort.

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

I think it is important to find an intersection between your own research interests and the real-world cybersecurity problems affecting our world today. The existing problems faced by government and industry give rise to very challenging and pressing open problems that make for exciting research projects.