IST grad students earn NASA Space Grant Consortium Award

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two doctoral candidates in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) have been awarded the NASA Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium IST Graduate Student Award, a grant that allows Pennsylvania graduate students to participate in NASA’s programs by supporting and enhancing scientific programs and research.

The recipients, Priya Anand and Dan Hellmann, received the award based on the relevance of the research each student conducted and the benefit it may have to the agency.

Though NASA is primarily known as an institution for aerospace research, IST research can have a deep impact on the future of the administration. Hellmann and Anand learned that their research, although neither directly dealing with aeronautics nor space exploration, fits the bill.

Hellmann, a third-year doctoral student from State College, began his research two months after he arrived at Penn State. He began examining crisis communication during the Ebola epidemic with adviser Carleen Maitland and Andrea Tapia, both associate professors of IST, which addressed how organizations use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and big data or advanced analytics to respond to the crisis. At its core, the project is about community-level information sharing.

The research, in which Hellmann conducted interviews with organizational representatives in the Digital Humanitarian Network — the umbrella organization that was a part of the Ebola response — provided a lens into how these organizations are formed and how they progress through various stages to detect themes of successful inter-organizational collaborations.

“Understanding how organizations relate to each other while collaborating is important,” said Hellmann. “If you are bringing activist organizations together, how they structure that collaboration and communicate along the way as a community may determine how successful they’ll be in their outcomes or their goals.”

As a government entity, NASA is eager to promote humanitarian innovations to not only assist their space exploration efforts, but also help citizens while they live on Earth. As Hellmann’s paper notes, “A foundation for public inclusion in the NASA mission has already been established, but it is geared toward crowdsourcing simple analysis or environmental monitoring tasks.” This research aims to enhance the sophistication of those efforts.

Anand’s research focuses on a completely different realm. The core idea of the fifth-year doctoral candidate’s research is that there are inherent vulnerabilities in software systems. Eventually software developers fix these issues, but these solutions are often short-term. Her approach to these security problems is to provide proactive, rather than reactive solutions.

Anand began by working with open source software systems and medical software as one of her case studies with her adviser, affiliated graduate faculty member, Jungwoo Ryoo, who has a background in the software security domain.

For example, explained Anand, “Medical facilities are realizing that they need to improve software security needed to preserve patient data and records.”

She connected with the OpenEMR software company to request notice of software vulnerabilities in the system as they arose. Anand found that one problem that occurred two years prior still persisted. It was through her dissertation research that she was determined to fix the problem on an architectural level.

“[Imagine] you have a hole in an aquarium tank,” she explained. Like an aquarium tank, software systems can be fixed with simple patches, though these solutions tend to be temporary and leaks recur from the same hole or different holes from the same tank. Rather than constantly patching leaks, Anand is working to proactively fix the vulnerabilities at an architectural level.

“We need to make sure the same vulnerability doesn’t exist within the same system,” she said, noting that it isn’t as easy as it seems.

“Security patterns are a summary of solutions to a particular security attack,” she explained. “It is not a cut, copy, paste — it is a reference model dependent on the skill of a person using it.”

Anand and her team have since developed a tool to find these recurring errors, which has been successful in finding 341 spots of similar software issues, creating 341 fewer defects to solve.

Though initially unsure as to why NASA, given its esteem as an aerospace institution, would have any interest in her research, Anand concluded that "Software is at the heart of all their data and information. They need to make sure the highly sensitive information stays within NASA.”

Hellmann and Anand noted that their time in IST prepared them to obtain this type of revered award.

Hellmann praised his time in IST, saying, “[The College of IST] has a very practical approach to science and technology in the entire program.”

Anand agreed, “The major difference I learned after coming here is the way you think and the guiding lens you have affect how you approach a problem.” She stressed the importance of the interdisciplinary skills taught in the college and their utility in the field. “The College of IST is the place where you can cover everything.”

Last Updated October 23, 2017