"As users, we blindly trust technology without understanding it"

05 December 2016

Interview with Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez, Research Assistant Professor at IMDEA Networks Institute (Madrid, Spain); Principal Investigator at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI), (Berkeley, CA, USA)

1. To begin this interview, we are curious about how you were called to a life in science. When and why did you decide to become a scientist?

I find it hard to answer this question. Viewed in hindsight, I think it has been a rather gradual and natural process. I have been attracted to Science from an early age, although also by other areas of knowledge such as History or the Social Sciences. My childhood was very normal, but my family and my social environment provided enough encouragement to keep me interested in a diversity of subjects. However, there were two defining situations that encouraged me to undertake a doctorate degree: first, a unique opportunity to complete my final year undergrad project at the University of Cambridge, thanks to a grant from the Spanish Mining Funds; second, my internship within the scientific group at Telefónica R&D in Barcelona directed by Pablo Rodríguez.

2. What personal and professional qualities are important for researchers/scientists to possess in your area of work?

I think it depends a lot on the personality of each researcher. It is true that over time I have been able to observe certain patterns among the most recognized senior researchers. It is important to be a person with intellectual curiosity, capable of critical thinking, self-motivated, with a capacity for effort and, above all, very persevering. The research career is a long-distance race, very competitive and with its ups and downs. Neither would I dismiss the importance of social and communication skills. They are essential for establishing new partnerships, obtaining funding, motivating your research group and disseminating knowledge. In the end, all the hours spent in the laboratory will fall on deaf ears if they remain in your notebook.

3. What training and background do you have as a researcher? What institutions have you been connected to up until now?

Thanks to the scholarship I received for my undergrad project in Cambridge I began to understand what research is really about, to develop creativity and instill in me a desire to engage in this world. At Telefónica R&D I acquired a slightly more practical and applied approach to research, which was consolidated after working for a year as a Vodafone R&D Engineer in the UK. In 2009 I returned to Cambridge University to commence my doctorate with Prof. Jon Crowcroft. During this time I undertook several internships in industrial laboratories such as Deutsche Telekom Labs in Berlin or Telefonica. After completing my doctorate in 2013, I accepted a one-year post-doctoral engagement at the Network and Security group led by Prof. Vern Paxson at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) in Berkeley (USA). My intention was to spend a year there in order to learn new methodologies and be able to delve deeper into areas previously unknown to me, such as network security and privacy. Finally, in 2014 I became a Principal Investigator, a position I now combine (since October) with my work at IMDEA Networks.

4. Under what circumstances did you come across the opportunity to work for IMDEA Networks? What appealed to you most about this initiative?

The opportunity to join the IMDEA Networks team arose as a result of my interest in developing a scientific career in Spain. I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to return and be able to contribute within my capacity to the scientific and educational development of the country. I’ve known IMDEA Networks from the onset of my doctoral studies. In fact, I had already visited the Institute on several occasions as a student. It seems to me an exciting initiative that has been able to capture talent thanks to the many advantages offered to the researcher.

5. What research lines will you be working on? What specific results do you expect to obtain?

My research could be defined as “the empirical analysis of networked systems”. The objective is to analyze real systems and emerging technologies in order to understand their use and to identify inefficiencies and abuses, whether intentional or unintentional. As users, we blindly trust technology without understanding it. Therefore, we are constantly victims of abuse, attacks and privacy violations without even realizing it. Two relevant examples may be the mobile applications we use in our day to day or new paradigms such as the Internet of Things and Smart Homes.
Therefore, I work for a more transparent and safer Internet for the end user. I often implement tools such as the Lumen Privacy Monitor, an app available on Google Play that informs users about how apps obtain their private data and what organizations they share it with. Tools such as this provide data to conduct studies, for example on privacy abuses in educational applications and children’s games – where there is strong regulation that is ignored by developers.

6. We are aware of your work experience in both the UK and the USA. Indeed, you continue to be affiliated to the University of California, Berkeley. In your opinion, what is the impact of Spanish research in your area of work within the international context?

Spain is well positioned in the global context but still has a long way ahead before it reaches the level of Anglo-Saxon universities and companies. To do so, I believe that it would be necessary to correct some idiosyncrasies of the national academic model in order to retain talent and promote competitiveness, coupled with a stronger institutional commitment to basic research that can then generate technology transfer. No doubt there is human capital and potential in Spain. You just have to witness the many Spanish engineers with positions of responsibility in Silicon Valley, the emerging start-up scene in Madrid and some of the interesting research projects that are carried out in Spanish universities.

Roberto Battiti (1)Presenting at the APNIC APRICOT 2015 Plenary Panel in Fukoaka, Japan.

Roberto Battiti (2)With the members of Fitzwilliam and Clare Colleges MCR Football Team in Cambridge.

Just after the Ph.D graduation ceremony in Cambridge in 2014 with his family.

At the summit of Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road at 5,359m, (Ladakh, India) with soldiers of the Indian Army stationed there.​

About to start an ascent to Mt. Shasta (4321m) in California in June 2016. At the summit of Monte Perdido, Ordesa National Park, Spain, with his brother.


Source(s): madri+d; IMDEA Networks Institute
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