Matt Sanford takes lifelong passion to new heights

Matt Sanford, a senior at Virginia Tech, is one of the creators of Drop A Pin, a rideshare app that tracks designated drivers and helps to connect them with people needing rides.

As early as middle school, Matt Sanford, now a senior at Virginia Tech, remembers working on projects such as building websites or programming small circuits. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he recognized his continued interest in computer science through college.

By the time he was a sophomore, Sanford figured he might as well add computer science as his primary major to his already declared computer engineering major. “Computer science was something I had always been passionate about,” said Sanford. “I knew that if I stuck with it, there would be a lot of opportunities for my future.”

After realizing challenges his fraternity brothers faced in Phi Sigma Kappa, Sanford created a phone application called Drop A Pin (DAP). Serving as a designated driving app, “It shows [the driver] how many people are in line and keeps a record of when and where people got picked up and dropped off,” said Sanford. “It’s free for Virginia Tech students to use and there are around eight or nine organizations using it currently.”

With the experience of creating a successful app under his belt, Sanford made the rounds at the Department of Computer Science career fairs his junior year. He landed an internship at a software engineering company, WillowTree, for two summers in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This accomplishment did not come easily to Sanford. Both of his grandmothers unexpectedly passed away before his sophomore year, a loss that left his GPA lower than he would have liked. However, with the help of faculty such as professors Kelli Karcher, Clifford Shaffer, and Ali Butt, Sanford gained knowledge that he believes set him apart from other candidates in internships and job interviews.

These experiences and instruction led Sanford to accepting an offer from Apple to work on their Apple Developers Tool team, where he will work on the tool he used to build DAP. Reflecting on his journey, Sanford said, “It’s like I’m coming full circle.”

–Written by Taylor Casarotti; a senior majoring in public relations and intern for the Department of Computer Science

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Department of Computer Science alumna Lucy Nowell inducted into the College of Engineering Academy of Excellence

Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering inducted six new members at its 19th annual Academy of Engineering Excellence. One of the six inducted this year was Department of Computer Science alumna Lucy Nowell.

The academy consists of 152 alumni out of Virginia Tech’s approximately 67,000 living engineering alumni who have achieved exceptional career successes.

Nowell received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theater from the University of Alabama in 1972 and 1974, respectively, then earned an M.F.A. in drama from the University of New Orleans in 1982. She worked in various instructor and professor positions in the dramatic arts at Lynchburg College before coming to Virginia Tech to earn her master’s degree (’93) and Ph.D. (’98) in computer science. During her graduate education at Virginia Tech, she served as a graduate research assistant in the Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science and worked as a summer intern at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. After completing her Ph.D. coursework,

Nowell returned to Lynchburg College as chair of their  Department of Computer Science, having also served as an associate professor of computer science and theater. In 2002, Nowell became deputy program manager for the Advanced Research and Development Activity/Disruptive Technology Office’s Novel Intelligence from Massive Data project, then a year later became the program manager of the Intelligence Community Advanced Research project. In 2007, she became program director of the NSF Office of Cyberinfrastructure. Throughout all of this, she also served as a chief/staff scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Lab. Since 2009, she has worked at the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research as a GS 15-10 computer scientist, program manager, and computer science team leader of the Computational Science Research Division. She is currently a member of the Virginia Tech Chapter of Upsilon Pi Epsilon National Computer Science Honor Society and of the Association for Computing Machinery, and has previously served as a member of various national higher education and theater arts organizations.

The academy was founded in 1999 by F. William Stephenson, former dean of the College of Engineering and by the college’s advisory board.

Read more about the academy and this year’s inductees here.

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Gang Wang receives CAREER Award to thwart email phishing attacks

Worldwide, billions of users have been affected by cyberattacks born of socially engineered email offensives that cause everything from mild inconveniences to putting human lives at risk when resources such as hospitals and government agencies are compromised.

Gang Wang, an assistant professor of computer science in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) to develop methods to thwart increasingly disruptive and dangerous cybersecurity threats from phishing attacks.

Wang will use the five-year grant, totaling $538,522, to create novel techniques that combine human intelligence and machine learning to combat real-world phishing attacks.
“Right now, automated detection systems run by algorithms tend to let questionable emails go through because false detections can be costly to users,” said Wang. “Think about all the email you receive in a day and how frustrated you would be if you were constantly missing important messages. What I am hoping to accomplish with this grant is to combine the nuance of human understanding in the smaller amount of emails that are questionable and develop techniques to help machines more easily uncover new attacks while maintaining the reliability of the system.”
The crux of the email phishing problem is twofold. While machines are excellent at combing through huge amounts of data very quickly, they are not good at detecting nuanced cues humans could otherwise readily detect. Secondly, no matter how sophisticated the machine learning models that are employed, advanced machine learning models only use historical data and are ineffective at detecting new threats that invariably pop up.

In some cases it may take only one or two emails to breach a large system.

Wang’s project has three broad goals: develop new measurement tools to automatically diagnose vulnerabilities in the existing phishing defense for email and social network systems; create novel machine learning interpretation techniques to drastically enhance users’ ability for phishing detection; and identify new crowdsourcing methods to produce reliable and real-time phishing alerts.

Wang’s preliminary results showed that carefully crafted phishing emails can penetrate most existing defenses, including Gmail, Outlook, and iCloud, leaving users exposed to phishing without any warnings. He based his findings on a scanning of 1 million domains and a penetration test on 35 email services.

Wang will study the effectiveness of his techniques using automated methods to block the massive phishing attacks with clear malicious signals while delivering the small portion of uncertain messages to users for further investigation. To improve the user ability of phishing detection, he will investigate fundamental techniques to translate machine learning results to human-interpretable semantics to assist users’ decision-making. The crowdsourced user results will then be aggregated to produce real-time phishing alerts for the broad Internet community.
Established in 1995, the NSF CAREER Award is the most prestigious award given by the NSF in support of junior faculty who demonstrate the potential to effectively integrate research and education.

Written by Amy Loeffler

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Two Department of Computer Science students receive Graduate School Awards

Two Computer Science graduate students were recipients of annual awards presented by the graduate school at Virginia Tech on March 29.

Rachel Kohler, a recent master’s recipient, received the William Preston Thesis Award which recognizes the outstanding MS thesis in STEM.  Kohler’s thesis research was supervised by Kurt Luther,
>assistant professor of computer science and director of the Crowd Intelligence Lab. Her research examined the problem of geolocating images and videos through crowdsourcing.

Gustavo Arango Argoty, a doctoral student, received the award for Outstanding Doctoral Student in an Interdisciplinary Program. Arango is advised by Liqing Zhang.  His research focuses on developing tools—including web services, deep learning, crowdsourcing and NLP strategies—to accelerate and improve the detection andquantification of antimicrobial resistance genes from metagenomics data.

Congratulations to all our graduates!

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