An Interview with Computer Science Professor Dr. Rebecca Wright

This summer, while at the NJ Governor’s School for Engineering and Technology, I was able to meet one of the keynote speakers, Dr. Rebecca Wright. After the program ended, I was also able to interview Dr. Wright about her experiences and insight into engineering. Dr. Wright is both a professor and researcher at Rutgers University for computer science, cyber security, and communications security. She attended Columbia University for her Bachelor’s degree and Yale University for her Ph.D.

As a little girl, both of her parents went to MIT and she was surrounded by female engineers. She was raised thinking that this was the norm, and that there were a decent number of women working in STEM fields. In fact, those women that she was surrounded by were a vast majority of female engineers and scientists in the world. Nevertheless, they collectively influenced Dr. Wright’s early decision to work in the computer science field. In high school, she chose computer science over playing the piano, deeming musical skills something that she needed more inherent talent for and engineering skills something more practical that she could work hard towards.

And indeed, a computer science degree was a hard major to work towards. I, based on my dramatically mind-exploding experiences in calculus, felt obliged to ask if the majority of the math classes she took in college were inapplicable to her current research and career. Dr. Wright admitted that the certain theoretical math classes were not useful, but the math learned from computer science classes was very important. In her first year of college, the discrete math requisite is what thoroughly fascinated and solidified her passion for computer science.

One of Dr. Wright’s most recent research projects focuses on human mobility modeling. Cellular networks provide the necessary data. She inferred home and work locations from each caller ID to create a model of users and their call behavior. Then, she created synthetic users with their calls based on the model. It effectively reproduced the real life population density distributions. The second project examined privacy on social media. Dr. Wright introduced a concept called side channels— information channels that are secondary to the intended communication channel but convey additional relevant information.

To examine side channels, Dr. Wright created an experimental Facebook account and discovered many “loopholes” or side channels that revealed information intended to be blocked (ie. friends’ restrictions). She conducted a survey to determine user awareness and concern about these side channels. One survey question asked if the user was aware that edit history was visible to anyone who can see the post. This type of research enables Dr. Wright to find and solve cyber security problems.

Outside of research, Dr. Wright has been to several leadership summits in Europe, China, Malaysia, Israel, etc. Communication, above all, is key. Thus, in response to my mentioning of the stereotype that engineers are bad writers, Dr. Wright laughed and stated that whether it was true or not, writing is crucial to engineering; after all, the discovery or invention is worthless
without effective communication.

As for personal advice, she underscored the work required to pursue such a career. Speaking from the experience of rushing to finish a research paper, completing arduous and sometimes arcane math classes, and many sleepless nights, Dr. Wright was sure to remind me that the path to becoming an engineer was not nearly as easy as she made it out to be. Laughing, I stated that I had and would never underestimate the effort.