Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham, Executive Director of the Cyber Security, Research and Education Institute, The University of Texas at Dallas

Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham: A Profound Educator and a Trailblazer in the Cyber Security Space

What makes a leader outstanding is the opportunity that they capitalize. It is the ability to take the chance while setting a foothold to face newer challenges and facing them head-on. These leaders are ever ready to make a significant shift at any given moment and prove themselves to be the best of the best. One such leader making waves in the cyber security space is Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham, who has paved her exceptional career path by grabbing every opportunity before her.

As the Executive Director of the Cyber Security Research and Education Institute at The University of Texas at Dallas, Dr. Bhavani’s work has resulted in 130+ journal articles, 300+ conference papers, 180+ keynote and featured addresses, seven US patents, fifteen books in data science and cybersecurity, and technology transfer of the research to commercial products and operational systems. We, at Insights Success, caught up with Dr. Bhavani to unveil her impactful journey and how she is leading by example.

A Voyage to Become Proficient Leader

Dr. Bhavani was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is of Tamil origin. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in Mathematics and Physics in 1975. She got married at the age of 20 and moved to England to start her graduate education. She received her Masters at the University of Bristol in Mathematical Logic and her PhD from the University of Wales in the UK in Theory of Computation.

Subsequently, she moved to the USA (New Mexico) during the Summer of 1980. She was offered a tenure track position at New Mexico Tech, but she chose a visiting faculty position instead because of her baby boy. During the summer of 1981, Dr. Bhavani moved to Minneapolis, and she landed a visiting faculty position at the University of Minnesota for two years. Subsequently, she joined Control Data Corporation as a senior software developer working in networks and distributed systems as an adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Bhavani enjoyed development and was an integral part of the team that developed CDCNET at Control Data, one of the early computer networks. After contributing to the first release of the product, she wanted to get into research, but it was not easy as she was limited to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Then, she got a lucky break. She became a US citizen in Fall 1985. Around that time, Honeywell had won a contract from the US Air Force to design and develop a highly secure database system, and Honeywell made her an offer. All three events had to occur for her to start her career in Cyber Security and Data Science. Since then, she has been very fortunate to have a very rewarding career.

After a career in the commercial industry, she moved to Boston, where she joined the MITRE Corporation, a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC). This is where she thrived with her technical work in research, development, and technology transfer in Data and Applications Security. She also led research programs for the government and was a consultant to several programs. Around this time, Washington called for her to be a program director at the National Science Foundation, which was a great experience. This was followed by a exceptional opportunity to build the Cyber Security Institute at UT Dallas from scratch as a tenured professor in October 2004.

Challenges are part of life, and Dr. Bhavani has dealt with a few of them over her career. Initially, it was about excelling at work and at the same time being a good mother. She took up this challenge and tried her best by enlisting the support of close friends and colleagues who helped her. She was fortunate to have very supportive managers at Control Data, Honeywell, and MITRE with respect to professional challenges. She relied on this support from colleagues and supervisors to handle the challenges. More importantly, Dr. Bhavani persuaded every effort to get good mentorship. With the encouragement of her mentors and colleagues, she formed a strong support group of women researchers and professors, and they still help each other in their respective careers.

Another challenge for Dr. Bhavani was moving from industry to academia. After a three-year stint as a program director with the government, she took the opportunity to work at UT Dallas. Her experience in the industry helped her tremendously at UT Dallas to work together as a team and build CSI. The challenges she faced over the years in her career and overcoming them by forming a strong support group have enabled her to thrive.

Awards and Accolades

Over the years, Dr. Bhavani has been recognized for her contribution in various fields. She has received numerous prestigious awards and fellowships.

  • Fellow of the IEEE, the ACM, the AAAS, the NAI, and the British-based IMA (Institute of Mathematics and its Applications)
  • IEEE CS 1997 Technical Achievement Award
  • ACM SIGSAC 2010 Outstanding Contributions Award
  • IEEE ISI 2010 Research Leadership Award
  • 2013 IBM Faculty Award
  • IEEE CS Services Computing 2017 Research Innovation Award
  • ACM CODASPY 2017 Lasting Research Award
  • 2017 Dallas Business Journal Women in Technology Award
  • ACM SACMAT 10 Year Test of Time Awards for 2018 and 2019
  • IEEE ComSoc Communications and Information Security 2019 Technical Recognition Award

Dr. Bhavani has also received the highly prestigious earned higher doctorate (only awarded in the UK and the British Commonwealth) Doctor of Engineering at the University of Bristol, UK, for her published research in Secure Data Management.

Dr. Bhavani has been a strong proponent of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) since the late 1990s. She cochaired the Women in Cyber Security Conference (WiCyS) in 2016 and delivered the featured address at the 2018 Women in Data Science (WiDS) at Stanford University. She also delivered keynote addresses at Cyber-W 2017 and 2020 (Women in Cyber Security Research), 2019 Women in Communications Engineering (WICE), and 2018 Women in Services Computing. She serves as the Co-director of both the Women in Cyber Security and Women in Data Science Centers at UTD. She received the Career Communications Inc. 2001 Woman of Color Research Leadership Award and the 2021 IEEE Cyber Security Cloud Special Recognition Award for her work on DEI.

Insights on Cyber Security and Computer Science

Dr. Bhavani joined UT Dallas after a 24-year career in the commercial industry, federal lab, and the US government. With this vast and diverse experience, she brought a unique culture to cybersecurity at UT Dallas that took a multipronged approach: Solving customer-specific problems while also focusing on fundamental breakthrough research. Another unique skill she brought to UT Dallas was developing prototypes and demonstration systems.

Dr. Bhavani started an international collaboration between the US, UK, and Italy to design and implement a cloud based system securely sharing information. This was a significant contribution as both government organizations and commercial corporations need to share information securely. She also forged partnerships with commercial companies both in DFW and nationally to solve challenging problems together in cybersecurity.

Finally, she motivated her team members to develop an entrepreneurial spirit by transferring their technologies to startups. Together as a team, they have graduated well over 100 PhD students who have gotten lucrative jobs in the industry, academia, and government. They have also graduated numerous masters and undergraduate students. The focus is not just on research and technology transfer but also on an outstanding education program. UT Dallas became one of the early universities in Texas to receive the NSA/DHS certification in Cyber Defense Education back in 2004. It was among the first batch of universities to receive the NSA/DHS certification in Cyber Defense Research in 2008. Besides, it was the first university in Texas and the 14th in the nation to get the NSA certification in Cyber Operations in 2015.

In addition, UT Dallas has also received substantial grants and contracts for its research and education efforts. It is also involved in extensive outreach in cybersecurity. It has hosted the annual TexSAW (Texas Security Awareness Week) annually since 2011 and hosts several cybersecurity workshops and competitions for students in Texas and neighboring states. As per Dr. Bhavani, one important piece of advice she offers to her team is that each person has unique strengths. It is a must to recognize this and bring out the best in each other.

The Swayed Circumstances

When asked about what influenced her, Dr. Bhavani said, “I am a voracious reader and like reading various books from literature such as Jane Austin, George Elliot, and Sir Walter Scott’s novels. motivational books such as Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney as well as books about inspiring people like Nelson Mandela and Marie Curie.”

At a very young age, Dr. Bhavani was fascinated by Marie Curie and read all about her. The person who has inspired her the most is Nelson Mandela. She was at Cape Town back in 1999 for a computer conference and visited Nelson Mandela’s jail cell in Robben Island. That’s when she decided to help those who are disadvantaged. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to support diverse groups of people, including women and disadvantaged minority communities, by giving motivational and technical talks.

Sustaining Positive Work Culture

Over her 40 year career, Dr. Bhavani has held technical, management, and leadership positions and has learned a lot about developing a positive environment in the workplace. In her opinion, everyone must treat each other with respect and listen to the comments, feedback, and everybody’s views in the division, department, college, company, or university.

UT Dallas has an extremely positive work environment. Its provost and multiple deans are female. Also, women are in leadership positions like department heads and institute directors. UT Dallas provides an environment where everyone can thrive. It has the results to show as it is the leading university in North Texas with respect to several programs and consistently among the top three public universities in Texas, especially in areas like Engineering, Computer Science, and Business.

UT Dallas’ Cyber Security Institute also follows a similar approach. Dr. Bhavani has been one of the strongest champions for women and underrepresented minority communities. This has also contributed to the enormous success of the university.

Offering Unmatched Services

Over the years, UT Dallas has developed numerous prototype implementations of key technologies that have been transferred to the US government and commercial products. For example, its work on Malware Analysis and Cloud-based Assured Information Sharing was incorporated in the STTR program called by the Department of Defense back in 2011, a huge win for UT Dallas, which meant that companies would work on commercializing its technologies.

In addition, UT Dallas has also influenced programs sponsored by the US government in multiple areas, including Adversarial Machine Learning and Binary Code Analysis. Our multi-pronged approach – from concepts to research to design to implementation to technology transfer to productization – while still focusing on its strong education efforts is what separates UT Dallas from several other cybersecurity institutes. It focuses on all aspects of cybersecurity, from education to research to cyber operations, and works closely with federal labs and commercial companies.

An Outlook on Technological Advancements

In Dr. Bhavani’s opinion, companies that do not adopt the new technologies in their products will be left behind. It is encouraging to see more and more companies adopting newer technologies, but it is also important to be sensible about it.

She states that incorporating all the latest technologies into products and make them unusable could be disastrous. Therefore, before incorporating new technologies, companies must talk to their customers about the need. One must be wise about adopting the technologies. Another major challenge for the companies is incorporating new technologies, which means more cyber-attacks. Thus, when a company uses a particular technology, it is important to get cybersecurity specialists involved in the discussion. A company’s business strategy must be closely intertwined with its cybersecurity strategy.

A Productive Approach in Pandemic

As the Executive Director of Cyber Security Institute, it was important for Dr. Bhavani to ensure students’ safety while also getting a high-quality education. The classes have been online since March 2020, and she tries her best to communicate with the students often – much more than she did when she was teaching in-person classes. She has mentioned to the students that they could contact her anytime, followed by setting up frequent meetings on Zoom or Teams.

While working from home, Dr. Bhavani has given over 20 keynote addresses on Zoom. Another opportunity she has had during the pandemic was to educate the public about cybersecurity challenges. She expresses that people rely too much on technology, yet many don’t think about the vulnerabilities these technologies have. Thus, while the pandemic has been tough on everyone, it has also given some new opportunities.

Contribution to Community

Throughout her career, public and community service have been of utmost importance for Dr. Bhavani. She served as an educator while working in the commercial industry. While working for Honeywell and starting her career in cybersecurity, she also taught at the University of Minnesota in Computer Science. She started giving motivational talks to diverse groups of people in cybersecurity and data science for the past several years, including the Society for Women Engineers, Women in Cyber Security, and Women in Data Science.

She has also given talks at DFW public libraries on cyberattacks. Regarding digital innovation, the rapid growth of technology brings a new set of cybersecurity challenges. She opines that every gadget that has a microprocessor, from pacemakers to televisions, could be attacked. This gives numerous opportunities to carry out breakthrough research and develop products to detect and prevent cyberattacks.

An Entrepreneurial Rundown

Dr. Bhavani’s vast experience also includes founding a company. She says, “The startup culture is very different and extremely challenging. To be successful, you must innovate. Without innovation, you cannot be an entrepreneur as a computer scientist.”

In her advice to emerging entrepreneurs, she says that you can proceed in two directions. The first is to do excellent research, make a breakthrough and then develop a product from that research and commercialize it. This has worked for some, especially in the earlier years of computing like Google. The founders developed highly innovative search algorithms far superior to others at that time. They were also at the right place at the right time, and that is Silicon Valley in the late 1990s.

The other direction is to find a useful problem to be solved. A hypothetical example is a ransomware which is a major challenge in cybersecurity. If one can solve this almost unsolvable problem, imagine the demand.

Dr. Bhavani added that she has learned from her experience, and she advises getting a very strong marketing person with much experience to talk to the VCs (Venture Capitalists). Often, she finds that technologists don’t speak the same language as those excellent marketers. They get bogged down with the technical details. It is important to get them involved early on to give inputs to product development efforts and explain the work process to the VCs.

A Progressive Preparation

Moreover, Dr. Bhavani believes that it is important to have succession planning. She has helped hire a few assistant professors into the institute as soon as they graduate. These professors have become well known and have received many awards and accolades. Therefore, her immediate goal is to transition the institute and her leadership roles in cybersecurity and data science at UT Dallas to these highly successful professors. She would like to continue her work with diverse groups, especially women and disadvantaged minority communities, in cybersecurity and data science.

Dr. Bhavani is very interested in establishing another startup together with one of her students. They are discussing applying for SBIR funds to develop further some of the breakthrough ideas this student has conceived.

Another focus area for her is to be more involved with the UN initiative on AI for Good. Recently she gave a featured address on “Can AI Be Good in the Midst of Cyber Attacks and Privacy Violations” and focused on violence against children as an application area. Dr. Bhavani would like to focus on such initiatives for the public good in the upcoming future.