Top 5 influential IT security thinkers
Top 5 influential IT security thinkers

Suzanna Schmeelk
Occupation: teaching at University of Maryland and a teaching assistant in New York
Age: 32
College: B.S. in computer science at The University of Richmond; M.S. in computer science from William and Mary; completed a doctorate in mathematics education at Rutgers, and pursuing a M.S. in technology management specializing in cybersecurity at NYU
Recent accomplishments: worked on numerous research projects (some sponsored by NSF) in networking, compilers, grid computing, security and education; numerous papers for academic journals and the IEEE; president of the New York/New Jersey Chapter of Graduate Women in Science (GWIS)

Suzanna Schmeelk is a woman on the frontlines of computer science, attempting to tear down the remnants of an old system that, she says, hasn't been updated to meet the needs of today's new computing environment. Her criticism is that students nowadays are not being taught to think independently.

“Divergent thinking is being lost,” she says. “The ability to assert innovative, conceptual ideas is stifled in favor of procedural exercises.” As an example, she points to the evolution in attack vectors where an engineer has to think about what the next criminal entryway might be. The future of protecting online commerce depends on encouraging this type of open questioning, she says.

For Schmeelk, thinking conceptually began early. Her grandfather and father were both math professors. Her dad, she says, was a “liberal” math person who encouraged her efforts “within ethical boundaries.” Her mom provided vision. “She said everything is going to be computers some day,” Schmeelk recalls.

While Schmeelk believes computer science, as it is currently taught, is too narrowly focused, there are shining lights who manage to think outside the box. She points to Apple's recently deceased co-founder Steve Jobs, and Joseph Nadan, a professor of management of technology and business innovation at Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), a research institution affiliated with NYU, where she is currently teaching. What she admires about them is their ability to see the big picture by combining engineering acumen with business needs. It's a matter of being goal-oriented and being able to envision an end result. “It's more about the value, not the process,” she says.

At NYU, Schmeelk is working as a cybersecurity consultant on a number of start-up projects, including collaborating with a number of hospitals and gaming companies. She serves as a resource as these incubating projects attempt to build websites, focused on applications-related challenges, such as how best to protect health care data and online privacy.

“I am more geared to management and understanding the computer science aspect of online efforts,” she says.
This involves more studying of human nature. “A lot of this needs to be analyzed from a perspective of motivation: Why is this person doing this?” she asks, referencing hackers and cyberbullying.

“Suzanna is someone who makes a difference,” says Marjory Palius, associate director of The Robert B. Davis Institute for Learning at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education in New Jersey, where she teaches mathematical reasoning courses.

“I think she does it by bringing outstanding personal qualities to bear upon her work,” Palius says. “Suzanna is bright, worldly, compassionate and highly creative. She is an innovative thinker who eagerly explores novel situations and applies focus, imagination and perseverance to solve problems and develop new techniques. 
Schmeelk was writing her doctoral dissertation at Rutgers as Palius and her colleagues were launching the Video Mosaic Collaborative, a portal to enable teachers and researchers to analyze and use classroom videos in math education. Schmeelk's dissertation was the first to incorporate multimedia, inserting video stills in support of her findings of children's mathematical learning as they built understanding of rational numbers as fourth graders, says Palius.

“The videos she analyzed for her research were among the earliest video clips for which we prepared metadata, with the help of Suzanna, in order to catalog and make them freely accessible to educators worldwide to support math learning, teaching and research,” Rutgers' Palius says.

Schmeelk brings these qualities as well to her efforts as president of the New York/New Jersey Chapter of Graduate Women in Science (GWIS), where she trains women in computer-related areas, serving, she says, as a broker of information to the community. But, it's not just a matter of transmitting data and details. While she's reluctant to discuss gender issues, she does admit that being that she was often the only female in her computer science classes, she enjoys her new role encouraging women in the sciences. “There's a choice a teacher makes,” she says, “to either encourage or discourage.”

Before her present activities, she interned at The Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology (TRUST). She has high praise for the consortium of academic and industry partners funded by the National Science Foundation to address issues affecting security, privacy and data protection.

“They're not average people,” Schmeelk says. “Working there, you realize these are people who are making the impossible possible.” A similar consortium is now being formed within NYU, she says.

She is also a prolific writer of research papers, which often focus on how one can manage a project by developing a prioritization schema. Here too she envisions how a project can build to an end result. Schmeelk presented papers on prototype tools for testing open source coding at security conferences for Yahoo! and eBay.
“I like thinking about a lot of different problems,” she says. – Greg Masters