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  • CSE Alumnus and New Faculty Member Picks Up Award in Scotland

    One of CSE's newest teaching professors, Leo Porter, has just received a best-paper award that recognizes his work as a researcher in the field of peer instruction. The Chair's Award at the annual ICER meeting recognizes the paper that best illustrates "the highest standards of empirical computing education research." At ICER 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland, the award honored Porter's paper on "predicting student success using fine grain clicker data."

    Porter (far right) was on hand to receive the award from conference chair Quintin Cutts, on behalf of himself and his two co-authors from Canada (Daniel Zingaro from the University of Toronto Misssissauga) and Australia (Raymond Lister from the University of Technology, Sydney).

    CSE alumnus Porter (M.S. '07, Ph.D. '11) and his colleagues used data derived from the use of clickers in the classroom, and they reported that clicker data can help predict which students are likely to succeed, or fail, on the final exam in an introductory computer science class. "Our results identify performance during the first three weeks of the term as a significant predictor of their success," notes Porter, who joined the CSE faculty at UC San Diego as of July 1, from Skidmore College. "It also allows us to identify which individual questions were most meaningful." Specifically, the paper found that the predictive nature of the questions in the study applied to code-writing questions, multiple-choice questions, and the final exam as a whole.

  • Computer Engineering Ph.D. Student Receives ARCS Fellowship

    CSE Ph.D. student Dustin Richmond will be an ARCS Scholar for the 2014-15 academic year. ARCS stands for Achievement Rewards for College Scientists, and the one-year award carries with it a $7,500 stipend. Richmond joined the Ph.D. program at UC San Diego in 2012 after finishing his electrical and computer engineering undergraduate degrees at the University of Washington.

    Richmond (at right) first learned about the ARCS program from his Ph.D. advisor, CSE Prof. Ryan Kastner. The student believes that a key to landing the ARCS fellowship was his involvement in CSE activities. "I've been active in a variety of capacities, including as chair of the Graduate Community Council, as lead for graduate student visit day, and various other opportunities," observes Richmond. "These volunteer experience have helped me meet all sorts of people in the department, and in return, they were willing to nominate me for the award." In his first year, Richmond worked with Cognex to design an ultra-high-speed image processing pipeline for active 3D scanners using a system based on field-programmable gate arrays, or FPGAs, to decompress and process 20,000+ images per second. Richmond has also participated in the Engineers for Exploration program, most recently joining an expedition to Guatemala to survey Mayan ruins using state-of-the-art LIDAR scanners.

  • Caught Between Theory, Practice and Peer Review

    The CRYPTO 2014 conference attracted nearly 400 experts to UC Santa Barbara recently, where one of the highlights was the Aug. 18 International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) Distinguished Lecture by CSE Prof. Mihir Bellare from UC San Diego.

    While he presented for an audience with specific interests in cryptology and cryptography, Bellare covered what he called (with characteristic understatement) "topics of quite broad interest" -- namely, being "caught between theory, practice, and peer review," the title of his talk (first slide pictured at right). The broad sweep of his remarks reflected Bellare's early interests in literature and history. Having come relatively late to science, Bellare told his audience, "In the company of theoreticians I feel liked a practitioner, while in the company of practitioners, I feel like a theoretician. It's not just me: our research community is caught between theory and practice."

    In the second part of his talk, Bellare focused on peer review, asking "how well does the process work?" and answering his own question bluntly: "Not very well." He went on to explore how "our culture incentivizes and perpetuates rejection." "Peer review is a broken, dark ages system," he added, "because it is fundamentally at odds with human nature and history." Bellare exhorted his colleagues to treat the peer review system as a research problem. "Think, write, talk, experiment," he said. "Our community is creative and imaginative. We have never shied away from hard problems. We have solved many. This is another." Bellare favors trying out new reviewing systems, and creating experimental publication venues. He also thinks academe could look elsewhere for ideas: discarding highest and lowest scores is used by the Olympics, so why not in the peer review process?

    Download Mihir Bellare's 90-slide IACR Distinguished Lecture presentation, now available from the CRYPTO 2014 website.

  • Larry Smarr Advises 23andMe on IBD Study

    In launching a new research initiative to study Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), the group 23andMe turned to CSE Prof. Larry Smarr and four other scientific advisors to assist 23andMe in analyzing data and developing surveys for the study. In announcing the IBD initiative, 23andMe quoted Smarr as saying that the study could illustrate the power of the 23andMe research model.  “I believe that a more accurate stratification of IBD disease states will result from classifying based on combinations of (genetic markers) than on symptoms,” said Smarr, director of Calit2, who has been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. “23andme is the best way to quickly get a large number of people classified to test this hypothesis.” The goal of the IBD study is to enlist 10,000 people in the effort.

    IBD is an umbrella diagnosis covering an estimated 1.4 million people in the U.S. with serious digestive conditions such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. 23andMe is collaborating with Pfizer, Inc., to “learn more about what role genetics and environment play in the development of IBD as well as how the condition progresses” – hopefully giving scientists and physicians new insights into the disease. 23andMe pointed out that Smarr has, over the last decade, “tracked everything from his weight, to his sleep patterns to his caloric intake and even the microbes in his stool to learn about his own health. But what had started as a simple effort to track weight loss soon became a focused effort to apply all his scientific skills to manage his own health and his own struggle with what he later learned was IBD.”

  • CSE Researchers Report Security Flaws in Backscatter X-ray Scanners

    A team of researchers from UC San Diego's Computer Science and Engineering department and co-authors from the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins University have discovered several security vulnerabilities in full-body backscatter X-ray scanners deployed to U.S. airports between 2009 and 2013.

    In laboratory tests, the team was able to successfully conceal firearms and plastic explosive simulants from the Rapiscan Secure 1000 scanner.  The team was also able to modify the scanner operating software so it presents an “all-clear” image to the operator even when contraband was detected.  “Frankly, we were shocked by what we found,” said J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan. “A clever attacker can smuggle contraband past the machines using surprisingly low-tech techniques.”

    The researchers attribute these shortcomings to the process by which the machines were designed and evaluated before their introduction at airports.  “The system’s designers seem to have assumed that attackers would not have access to a Secure 1000 to test and refine their attacks,” said Hovav Shacham (above right, with CSE Ph.D. student Keaton Mowery), a professor of computer science at UC San Diego.  However, the researchers were able to purchase a government-surplus machine found on eBay and subject it to laboratory testing.

    Many physical security systems that protect critical infrastructure are evaluated in secret, without input from the public or independent experts, the researchers said.  In the case of the Secure 1000, that secrecy did not produce a system that can resist attackers who study and adapt to new security measures.  “Secret testing should be replaced or augmented by rigorous, public, independent testing of the sort common in computer security,” said Shacham (at left, in front of the backscatter x-ray scanner as during a security check).

    Secure 1000 scanners were removed from airports in 2013 due to privacy concerns, and are now being repurposed to jails, courthouses, and other government facilities.  The researchers have suggested changes to screening procedures that can reduce, but not eliminate, the scanners’ blind spots.  However, “any screening process that uses these machines has to take into account their limitations,” said Shacham.

    The researchers shared their findings with the Department of Homeland Security and Rapiscan, the scanner’s manufacturer, in May.  The team will present their findings publicly at the USENIX Security conference, Thursday Aug. 21, in San Diego.  (Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications)

    View details of the results at
    To contact the research team, e-mail
    Read more about CSE faculty, student and alumni participation in USENIX Security 2014.

  • Computer Science at UC San Diego Ranked #11 in World

    UC San Diego is doing great in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) compiled annually by Shanghai Jia Tong University, and CSE is doing even better, based on the results for computer science programs.

    The 2014 rankings are out, pegging UC San Diego as the #14 university in the world. At the same time, the ARWU released its field-by-field rankings, and in the computer science category, CSE tied with USC for the #11 spot. That put computer science at UCSD just ahead of #13-ranked Caltech and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at #14. Both the campus and computer science rankings were unchanged from the 2013 level.

    CSE’s reputation, however, is substantially up from just a few years ago, based on the same ranking system. In 2011 computer science at UCSD was #16 in the world, then rose to #14, before jumping to #11 in 2013 and plateauing this year.

    UC San Diego appears to have benefited from the relative strength of its track record in computer science papers, citations and quality of publications, which together account for 75 percent of data on which the ARWU subject rankings are based. The relative weights in each category: 25 percent of the university’s score comes from highly-cited (HiCi) researchers in computer science; 25 percent on the number of papers in all computer science-related publications and conferences; and since 2009, ARWU also looks at the percentage of those papers published in the top fifth of computer science journals (a measure of the quality of papers). The final 25 percent of each university’s score is based on whether the program boasts any alumni or current faculty who have received the highest award in computer science, the Turing Award (none at UCSD).

    The ARWU rankings grew out of China’s need to benchmark how well Chinese universities perform against the best universities in other countries. Since the primary focus was on research, experts consider the ranking system the most useful in assessing “raw research power” (in the words of one UK expert). The ARWU has ranked the Top 500 universities since 2003.

    Visit the Academic Ranking of World Universities in Computer Science for 2014.
    Read the AWRU 2014 overall rankings, methodology and statistics.

  • Alumni Succeed in Aerial Drone Cinematography Kickstarter Appeal

    A group of CSE alumni have started a new company called SparkAerial, and just launched a campaign on the Kickstarter crowdfunding service. As of Aug. 19, with 20 days to go in the campaign and 76 backers committed, the startup had already surpassed their $5,000 goal, so the Aerial Cinematography Flight School will be funded on September 9 to the tune of $5,686, plus whatever amount is funded in the next 20 days.

    CEO/President Radley Angelo (BS Computer Science '12), pictured at center with, at left, COO Kurt Selander (BS Computer Engineering '13) and CFO/Lead Software Engineer Austin Hill (BS Computer Engineering '13) bill their company as a full-service shop for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), offering custom-built quadcopters and other flying UAVs, and also providing aerial cinematography services. As CSE students, Angelo, Selander and Hill participated in the Engineers for Exploration program, co-directed by CSE Prof. Ryan Kastner and Qualcomm Institute research scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin. Angelo even accompanied Lin on a National Geographic expedition to Mongolia in search of Genghis Khan's tomb. Since then, the students' work has been featured on CNN, ABC's Good Morning America, BuzzFeed, TechCrunch and the National Geographic Channel.

    The Kickstarter campaign funds will primarily allow the team to make an aerial cinematography video training series, including Aerial Photography 101, and Quadcopter/UAVs 101. According to their crowdfunding appeal, the students "want to teach the world how to have fun, fly safe, and capture amazing content." The series will cover everything from the basics (such as choosing a copter and taking off for the first time), to more advanced piloting maneuvers.The Kickstarter funds could also allow SparkAerial to build an online resource center for aspiring drone pilots. 

    Visit the SparkAerial website.
    Read more about the Kickstarter campaign.
    Watch a video showcasing SparkAerial's capabilities.

  • CSE Faculty Participate in New Funding Channel for Research

    More than 100 UC San Diego researchers will be involved in a two-year pilot program on Benefunder, a San Diego-based philanthropic research funding platform for higher education institutions. Benefunder and UC San Diego signed a Memorandum of Understanding to embark on the pilot program, and their long-term goal is "to allow junior and senior faculty in diverse disciplines to create funding relationships with private supporters from across the country, and generate one-time and recurring donations to fund their work and vision." According to Vice Chancellor for Research Sandra Brown, UC San Diego researchers "work on some of the most critical issues facing the world today. Benefunder is a way for donations to have a direct and powerful effect—to help understand and solve problems and enhance the quality of lives around the world. The hope is that working together we will actively expand funding opportunities for our researchers through new engagements.”

    Indeed, UC San Diego has the largest presence among universities on Benefunder to date, in part because ECE Prof. Gert Lanckriet is a co-founder of the platform, which is pending status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Well over half the existing profiles feature UC San Diego faculty, with a fair number featuring CSE professors. They include Ryan Kastner ("extending the limits of human exploration using drones and 3D imaging"), Scott Klemmer, pictured at left ("leveraging human-computer interaction for social and psychological design excellence"), Stefan Savage and his "Fast & Furious Cybercrime-Stompers," Lawrence Saul (pictured at top), whose focus is on "Ending Malware Mayhem", and former CSE Prof. Serge Belongie (now at CornellTech). Presumably more CSE faculty members who want to attract philanthropic support will be added to the roster as more UC San Diego professors are featured on the website.

  • CSE, UCSD-TV Sign Partnership for 'Computing Primetime'

    Get ready to watch more news and discussion about the world of computing on UCSD-TV and the University of California-TV. After extensive discussions about the way forward, the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and UCSD-TV have signed a joint production agreement that will put new programming on the television network's schedule as early as October 2014.

    "It's my pleasure to announce the launch of our Computing Primetime broadcast initiative," said CSE Chair Rajesh Gupta. In the first year, he added, "this partnership will provide for production and broadcasting of eight programs to be aired on UCSD-TV and UCTV throughout California on a must-carry community channel." The programs will also be available on cable stations around the country and via a free channel on the high-speed streaming service, Roku. The programming will also be available online through a variety of video-on-demand websites, including iTunes U and YouTube. There is even a free mobile UCTV app from Apple's iTunes store to help with downloading or streaming video or audio-only versions of the programs.

    The programs will be produced as a partnership between CSE and UCSD-TV. Half the programs will be produced in the studio as one-on-one interviews with "visionaries in computing." The other programs will be hour-long faculty or guest lectures. Each program will air at least four times in primetime hours across UCTV and UCSD-TV, and a total of at least 45 times around the clock during the 12 months following each program's premiere showing. In addition, UCSD-TV will continue to air field reports and programs produced by CSE personnel in conjunction with Calit2's Qualcomm Institute and the Jacobs School of Engineering. In announcing the agreement Aug. 11, CSE's Gupta encourage faculty members to propose topics and potential speakers for future programs. "With this, we take our first steps into creating an important step in educating the general public about the importance of computer science and its impact on society and life," said Gupta. "We hope that Computing Primetime will also earn us important name recognition for a young department."

  • Petition and Report at DEF CON Echo CSE Report on Automotive Hacking

    Remember the headlines when a team of computer scientists from CSE and the University of Washington called attention to the dangers of automobiles being hacked? They first made the news in 2010, when CSE Prof. Stefan Savage and CSE alumnus Tadayoshi Kohno (MS '04, Ph.D. '06), now a professor at UW, presented a peer-reviewed "Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile." The two groups of researchers had come together in a Center for Automotive Embedded Systems Security, primarily with funding from the NSF, and their landmark paper was presented at the 2010 IEEE Symposium on Security and Policy. Well now, four years later, a group of cybersecurity experts at DEF CON 22, the annual conference on hacking that ended Aug. 10 in Las Vegas, have responded with a policy prescription that they call a "Five Star Automotive Cyber Safety Program." The informal group calls itself "I Am The Cavalry", and the five stars of the title refer to five areas where they say action is needed to keep cars safe from hackers. They include: safety by design; third-party collaboration; evidence capture; security updates; as well as segmentation and isolation. Those five "critical capabilities" are also at the core of a public petition to the automotive industry, posted on by The Cavalry, calling on the automotive industry to "set a new standard for safety."

    Read the 2010 Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile.  
    Learn more about the Five Star Automotive Cyber Safety Program. open letter to the automotive industry.

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