Is there a recipe a scientist might follow to spur creativity and cook up new discoveries? Cyber security expert Kevin Fu of the University of Massachusetts Amherst says spending time in the kitchen experimenting with basics — flour, salt and yeast — to bake artisanal bread helps to keep his creative juices flowing and gives him a great environment in which to mull over thorny research problems.
He'll be sharing such ideas and other insights on how science is done — and perhaps even baking bread on stage — for 800 high school and college students this week at the 2010 "Make A Difference" conference in Hong Kong. His talk is titled "Cooking Up Scientific Discovery." Organizers say the young participants will "get inspired by changemakers from around the world" and "be empowered through workshops and challenges."
Fu, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Technology Review magazine's 2009 Innovator of the Year, is a good choice to deliver the talk, as he is one of the most inventive young cyber security researchers working today. The multi-talented researcher also has a fondness for Latin and the Classics. Fu started baking bread several years ago after an idle discussion with a research colleague about lunch.
"When I was a graduate student at MIT, I once boasted about having made a sandwich from scratch. A colleague retorted, 'But did you make the bread?' Because of this challenge, I began baking my own artisanal breads and enrolled in short courses at the Culinary Institute of America and the French Culinary Institute. I created time-lapsed videos of bread fermentation to appreciate time scales. I made identical batches of bread with subtle differences in technique for comparative analysis. I planted a small wheat field to better understand how something as simple as bread relies on layers of abstraction and know-how.
"In my cyber security research, I find that similarly simple questions often lead to the most interesting results. But how does a wireless pacemaker work? But what information is on your RFID-enabled credit card? My security research is guided by thinking deeply about simple things that society often unknowingly takes for granted. Before my journey into bread making, my research philosophy was only half baked," he quips.
A member of the UMass Amherst faculty since 2005, Fu specializes in research to improve computer security and privacy for such applications as implantable medical devices and contactless credit cards. In 2008, his research team showed that implantable cardiac defibrillators were vulnerable to compromise, which led them to begin designing and testing zero-power technology and low-power cryptographic protocols for implantable medical devices. Zero-power means the chips operate without draining the device's batteries — making devices more secure. Fu's Security and Privacy Research Lab continues to analyze security and privacy of medical devices and programmable RFID tags.
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