7/12/2022 10:12:41 AM
This year’s group of 13 doctoral student winners from applied science, mathematics, and engineering were announced by the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation in May. Nair credits his focus in cybersecurity research, honed during his time as a student at Illinois CS, as the primary reason he earned selection.
Recent Illinois Computer Science alumnus Vivek Nair (CS BS, MCS ’21) can recall many integral moments and memories on his academic path to impactful research in cybersecurity. These moments all led up to May, when he received the prestigious Hertz Fellowship for 2022.
Initially, there was the time his father, Rajesh, started bringing his work laptop home when Vivek was six or seven years old. He not only played games on that laptop but taught himself to code through the Batch scripting language on Microsoft.
Then, later in high school, Vivek realized the high price of an iPad, so he created the LOOP tablet – which he then sold about 1,000 of online. The tablet was purposefully made with cheaper parts, so that it could provide a more accessible gateway to internet access. Vivek sold it for $99 retail price.
Also in high school, while he took online courses online through Stanford Online High School, Vivek lived with his parents in Singapore. He took the LOOP tablet to a maker fair and met the CEO of a small medical startup called Holmusk. The CEO approached him after being impressed with the tablet, and soon Vivek had a summer job. The job taught him some initial lessons about cybersecurity in the healthcare realm, and it intrigued him enough to begin his participation in cybersecurity conferences like DEF CON.
There was the time in his 9 p.m. code session for CS 126 here at Illinois CS where Vivek’s undergraduate mentor and teacher’s assistant, Patrick Gallagher, tried to convince him not to use a goto statement in his code. Vivek said that Gallagher stuck to his point over the course of a 20-minute back-and-forth. But he also called Gallagher’s response “priceless” the next week when Vivek used nothing but goto statements in his code.
And there was the role professors Chris Fletcher and Andrew Miller both played in his continued interest in cybersecurity research during his graduate studies. Vivek still works closely with Miller – who first taught him in cryptography courses – through a co-teaching experience in a decentralized finance class offered online. Additionally, Vivek credits Fletcher, who taught his graduate security course, with helping him on his path to the PhD program he is currently enrolled in and with playing an important role in shaping the direction of his PhD thesis.
But one moment stands out more than anything else, in terms of the impact on Vivek’s academic path thus far.
“I still recall back in high school when I first visited the University of Illinois, I ended up knocking on the door of now professor emeritus Roy Campbell at the Siebel Center for Computer Science,” Vivek said. “Much to my surprise, he answered and welcomed me in. We talked for about an hour, and he allowed me the chance to tell him about myself, my interest in cybersecurity research, and what I had done in the field during my high school years. My parents just had to wander around Siebel for that hour or so.
“Professor Campbell showed a lot of authentic interest in me and convinced me I should come to Illinois. He told me he would help advise me here, and he informed me about the Cyber Security Scholars Program. His interest in my work and the way he spoke about the department is a primary reason I chose to study at Illinois CS.”
Just three years later, at the age of 19, Vivek was finishing his Computer Science Master’s degree, one of the youngest ever to do so in the department.
Thinking back, Nair believes these moments led him to become a worthy candidate of the Hertz Fellowship, which will provide $250,000 in funding over the next five years to continue his pursuit of cybersecurity research.
His hope is that more Illinois CS students will view themselves the same way, as accomplished computer scientists worthy of the lofty goal.
Looking forward, Vivek remains most intrigued in the use of cybersecurity at the national level. He has worked with the US Department of Defense (DoD), and, ideally, would like to continue that line of work after his PhD is complete.
That’s because he believes the technology there is advanced and best fulfills his goal of using cybersecurity techniques to directly help others.
“Even though I’ve enjoyed working in entrepreneurial and industry spaces, what I enjoy most about academic research in cybersecurity and working with the DoD is that I receive the immediate gratification of seeing how my work benefits others,” Vivek said. “Keeping people safe from cyber threats is a huge motivation for me, and cybersecurity is a tangible way to create this experience because work in this area directly helps people.”
In an era when most everyone feels the impact of digital security in some way, shape, or form, Vivek’s dedication to the field has proven useful for years.
This dates back prior to college, when he remembers first becoming interested in cybersecurity because of a widespread attack that utilized a cell phone’s SIM card to bypass two-factor authentication.
Vivek created a company called Multifactor.com to utilize virtual phones for those who signed up, creating a phone number they could use for two-factor authentication. The safety net came in the form of the virtual phone, which, of course, doesn’t have a SIM card. Vivek wrote his first patent based on this invention in 2016 and has gone on to file at least 10 further patents in the field of cybersecurity. He adds his 11 patents to the list of more than 3,000 filed by Hertz Fellows since the start of the program in 1963.
Now, he continues uncovering new solutions in the area through his PhD work at UC Berkeley and as a researcher at Cornell’s Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Contracts. Vivek studies new ways of using modern cryptography to engineer countermeasures against common digital threats, and in 2022 he was awarded the Tong Leong Lim Pre-Doctoral Prize – given annually to the Berkeley student who achieves the highest distinction in the pre-doctoral examination. As a recipient of the National Science Foundation CyberCorps® Scholarship and NPSC Fellowship, he works closely with the DoD to build resilient cyber systems and address urgent national security threats.
This work, he said, will only be enhanced by the recent Hertz Fellowship.
“Receiving the Hertz Fellowship is a tremendous honor,” Nair said. “In large part, that’s because of the stature of many former fellows; this includes winners of the MacArthur Fellowships, the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Science, the National Medal of Technology, the Turing Award, and the Nobel Prize. These are now people who I will have the opportunity to connect with, and I couldn’t be more excited.
“Additionally, Hertz is an organization that is very focused on national security, to the point that we pledge to be available to our nation in times of crisis. This is, of course, something that aligns very closely with my own motivation for what I’m pursuing in this field.”