CYBER-DEFENCE FELLOWSHIPS: Simran Tinani
To promote research and education in cyber-defence, EPFL and the Cyber-Defence (CYD) Campus launched in December 2020 the third call for Doctoral and Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship applications – A Talent Program for Cyber-Defence Research.
This month we are introducing you Simran Tinani, the recipient of the second CYD Doctoral Fellowship. Simran is in the third year of her doctoral studies in the Institute of Mathematics, at the Applied Algebra Group at University of Zürich.
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, Prof. Joachim Rosenthal. I read more online and really liked the vision behind the Cyber Defense Campus and its initiatives, especially the launching of these fellowships. The opportunity to collaborate with other pioneers in the field of cyber security was a key motivating factor in my decision to apply. My interaction with Dr. Carlo Matteotti, who is my CYD Campus Mentor, was also a very encouraging part of the process.
What is your CYD Fellowship project about?
My project is in the field of algebraic cryptography, and it focuses on the study of a new potential direction for post-quantum public key exchange. More specifically, it involves the analysis of some non-commutative algebraic structures such as non-abelian groups to design cryptographic systems that may potentially resist quantum algorithm attacks.
What are the advantages of conducting your master thesis/doctoral/postdoctoral project at the CYD Campus?
The advantages are multi-fold, but the most important is the communication with other young researchers and experts in the field of cyber security, and the alliance between the mathematical and practical ends of cryptography. This allows me to see my project from a broader perspective, and to steer it in directions that I hope are fruitful to both the mathematics and cyber security communities.
Did you as a child dream of working in cyber-defence?
Not really. I did not even know the meaning of the word as a child. (In fact, I am still learning about the vast fields of study and practice that this term encompasses.) All I knew was that I wanted to become a scientist of some kind. I only truly decided to become a mathematician when I started university studies. At the end of my master’s degree, I decided to turn towards a slightly more applicable side of mathematics. This decision, combined with my love for algebra, led me to apply for, and join, a PhD position in the Applied Algebra Group at the University of Zurich and to work in the field of mathematical cryptography. With my acceptance into the CYD Fellowships, I have also been learning more about the areas of cyber defence that go beyond cryptography. In summary, I ended up in this field through a combination of decisions based on interest and some fortunate coincidences!
What is driving you to pursue research in cyber-defence?
Human society in this day is clearly in a phase of rapid transition, where the virtual world is forming a larger and larger part of our lives each day. More and more of our transactions, communication, work, information, consumption, and entertainment, are shifting online. As a result of this, cyber-crime is becoming more of a deadly threat, not only to individuals or private organizations, but to entire nations. Therefore, I believe that developing robust systems for cyber-defence is one of the most pivotal pursuits of technology today.
More specific to my project: I believe that this topic is of substantial significance to the future generation of public key cryptography. As cryptographers today scramble to find post-quantum solutions for data protection, it is a pressing matter to find mathematical constructions that resist known quantum algorithm attacks. While code-based, lattice-based, and isogeny-based cryptography are some strong and relatively well-studied potential solutions, the use of non-commutative algebraic structures such as nonabelian groups, is an emerging idea, which, I believe, also has vast potential for future use.
What is the most important lesson you have learned in your scientific career so far?
Perhaps one of the most important lessons so far was to be open to learning about scientific fields different from one’s own. Often, especially, in a research career, one gets caught up with enhancing and deepening one’s knowledge in the very specific, niche topic of one’s study, and views the time spent learning about anything else as wasted. However, I have come to realize that different types of knowledge, experience, and skills enhance, rather than take away from, each other. Learning about the methods, tools, and even the history of a different area of mathematics, computer science, and even another science entirely, like biology, can render one with entirely new perspectives and ideas for one’s own research.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I could not pick just one thing: while awards and recognitions are great encouragements, I feel like the best kind of pride is felt for how far we see ourselves having come. I am happy and proud that I was able to transition from an abstract mathematics training to doing research in applied algebra and cryptography, which I find exciting and fulfilling, and am grateful for all the learning opportunities I have had so far.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?
I love participating in sports! Running, swimming and weight-lifting are my favourites. Staying active is an important factor for both physical and mental health, and I feel that it also helps me work better. Apart from that, I enjoy reading books, particularly popular science, psychology, and classic fiction.
What are your expectations about the CYD Fellowship?
I hope that my project leads to results that are in some way helpful for the field of non-commutative cryptography, and that I am able to present my work not only to other mathematicians and cryptographers, but also to other researchers in cyber-security. I believe that it is key to develop a more holistic line of communication in the field of cyber security, between experts and young researchers in different subfields, and I expect that the CYD fellowship program will play a key role in facilitating this.
Could you share some tips with future applicants who are considering applying for the CYD Fellowships?
One thing I learnt during the application process was the importance of believing in your chosen research project, and vice versa, of choosing a topic that you truly believe is important. I also learnt the importance of effective and clear communication of one’s research to others, both through written proposals, and through spoken word. It is important for a student to know the goals, plans, and impact of their research thoroughly, and to be able to convey these to others efficiently. These skills are, in fact, crucial to all kinds of research application procedures.
The CYD Fellowships are supported by armasuisse Science and Technology.