This article was edited by SPRITE+ Research Associate Dmitry Dereshev, with the interview responses and edits from Professor Deeph Chana.
Today the spotlight is on Deeph Chana – Professor and Co-Director of the Centre for Financial Technology at the Imperial College Business School, Co-Director of the Institute for Security Science Technology (ISST) at the Imperial College London, Co-Founder of the Research Institute in Trustworthy Industrial Control Systems (RITICS), the Founder and Director of a technology development consultancy specialising in critical infrastructure and smart city applications, and a SPRITE+ Co-Director.
How would you describe your job to a 12-year-old?
I am a scientist, and I look at ways people can use science to keep the world safe and secure, especially online and with regards to cybersecurity.
Could you describe what you do during a typical workday?
I am an academic, working at Imperial College London. I direct two different activities there. One is, I am a co-director of the Institute for Security, Science and Technology (ISST). We connect academics with real-world security and defence problems, and use the academic intellect to solve some of those problems. This ranges from cybersecurity using machine learning and artificial intelligence, to looking at novel materials to prevent the impacts of blasts and explosions.
My other hat is that I am a professor and a co-director of the Centre for Financial Technology in the Imperial College Business School. The centre encourages research and development looking at how technology affects finance. This involves connecting our academics to the finance industry. I am heavily involved in executive education as well, where I lecture executives on topics of security in general, and financial systems in particular.
I have also been building technology startup companies as a STEM entrepreneur for the last 6-7 years. I run a consultancy where I work with startups and also with large companies to shape their research and development roadmaps.
My latest thing is being a co-director of SPRITE+.
This may sound like a lot, and I am lucky that I have excellent teams at ISST and at the Centre for Financial Technology. As a director, I can only do the many things that I do with teams that I have working with me. Much of what I described is really a team effort.
Could you describe a challenging/interesting project that you have recently worked on?
There is a big project that I am working on right now. It is not a research project per se, but we are trying to create a physical space in our new campus in White City Imperial where industry leaders, government, and academia, can co-locate and be in the same physical space to put forward ideas and innovate for security.
We have been working on this for the past 2 years or so. We now have the UK Ministry of Defence physically located in our White City campus, together with several companies like Airbus and Northrop Grumman. As academics, we are in that space as well.
With everyone physically there, we are trying to build an incubator for startups in the security space. The challenge is to get an agreement between all of the different stakeholders, and set out a vision that everybody can sign up to and feel that they are a part of. When you are dealing with different entities like that, everybody has slightly different aims and objectives. Trying to align those objectives has been quite challenging. With COVID-19 physical restrictions, holding an activity together is a unique challenge which we are facing right now.
Research-wise I have been recently involved in looking at machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) for cybersecurity applications. Working with a postdoc of mine, we were looking at how we could use machine learning for both defensive applications for complex computational and cyber-physical networks, and how we could use machine learning and AI potentially offensively on those networks as well, to inform us how we can better defend them. In defending those networks, one of the big challenges was trying to figure out how you can have a machine learning-type application, which could detect when something is going wrong in a very large complicated network when it can only see parts of the data in that network. When you can only see parts of the network, it becomes quite a difficult problem to solve.
What training/experience did you have at the start of your career?
When I was at school, I was extremely interested in science and technology, but I was very passionate about art as well. These were the things I had to balance in my life. When it came to picking my A-levels, I decided that I would prefer to do the science. I was very interested in physics at that point, and I did not particularly want to study art because it became quite a personal thing for me, so I decided to keep that separate from being graded.
Eventually, I went to university to study physics. Then, I did a PhD which was quite a mix between theoretical and applied physics: I was looking at image processing and image restoration in the Optics Group at King's College London.
I spent four years doing my PhD and then I stayed in the university for another five years doing postdoctoral work on a number of different contracts. I worked with the team at Philips in the Netherlands that designed and built the first Blu-ray disc, which was very exciting. It taught me a lot about how you can take science and turn it into something practical. I also worked on a project developing technology for using image processing to diagnose diabetes early by imaging the back of the eye.
The last project I worked on was figuring out how destroyed satellites would pollute space environment and what the consequences of that would look like. That got me very interested in security and defence-related work. I realised how new that space was and that it needed different types of people to make a difference. I joined the government shortly after that.
How did you get into your current role?
I left the university after my postdocs, because I did not see a clear pathway for someone of my age at that time to take on the level of responsibility that I felt I could. I think, there are still issues in universities when it comes to showing young researchers who might be capable, a clear pathway to leadership. When I worked on the space project, it became clear to me that I could do a lot more, and I wanted to lead programmes and have international impact. So, I left the university when I had an opportunity to join the UK government.
In the UK government, I ran a national security function in Whitehall. That involved running a multi-million pound research and development programme, analysing the security risks to the country, figuring out where we should do better in terms dealing with those risks, and then investing in research and development to better handle those risks. It also meant that I was flying around the world, meeting our international partners, seeing what they were doing in the same space, and creating cooperative programmes and alignment between what we were doing with what was happening in Europe, over in the US, and with our partners in Asia.
When I joined the government, I was very rapidly in a position of a lot more responsibility than what I would have had had I stayed in the university. I gathered a lot of experience of how to run large-scale programmes. The outputs of our work set national policy, so it was not unusual for me to watch TV and see the prime minister or another leader in the world setting a national security policy directly based on the work that we had done. My job often involved briefing ministers in the UK directly during, for example, the COBR meetings. That was where I got the experience of running big-impact projects.
I left the government after about 5-6 years, because I decided I wanted to go back into the startup space. I had become quite experienced as a government official at directing, but I wanted to go back into making things because I saw some very fascinating things happening with the emergence of data-driven technologies. This is when I ended up with this blended portfolio of working with startups and working at the university.
Part of my work was at the Imperial College London, where there was an opportunity to join the Institute for Security Science Technology. I joined as a deputy director of the Institute, and then became a co-director there. Through my work in Imperial, I picked up a lot of other responsibilities.
I would love to tell you it was all planned, but it kind of just happened. I think you have to be a bit opportunistic and not overly planning. I have done a lot of work with startups and I know how to grow a technology business. This was my pathway to getting a professorship position in the Imperial College Business School, even though I lead the Institute which sits under engineering.
Such a multidisciplinary role has its challenges, sometimes spinning quite a number of plates at once. If you can put good teams together, then this sort of thing is possible, you can do that. But if you try and do all of that on your own, then I do not think it is possible.
What do you wish you'd known when you started your career?
There were periods of time when it was difficult to know whether I was making the right moves, and whether things would be okay. A couple of times I challenged myself to change from one sector to another and quite often when I did that, I received a lot of positive and supporting comments from friends, but also quite a lot of negativity. People were pessimistic about whether or not that was possible to do.
What I would like to have known is that it is alright not to listen to that negativity too much. It is good to listen to it when it makes sense, but it is also good just to try and make your own way. Had someone been able to tell me that with a bit more assurance when I was younger, it would have probably saved me a bit of worry and concern.
The other thing I wish somebody had told me back then, was that it was important to be more vocal about issues like prejudice, and to be more active in that. When I was younger, I always thought that through action and achievement we could change the way things were in society. People should just focus on achieving and then through example, people would realise that prejudice was not a healthy thing. The recent events have somewhat challenged that position for me. I think I would have been a bit more proactive and nuanced about the way I went about things.
What would you recommend to people who want to follow in your footsteps?
I think self-belief is very important, and self-confidence is a good thing to nurture. It may seem like it is easy for some people to achieve self-confidence, but I think it is a very difficult thing to do for most people. Confidence for me can come from the effort that I put into understanding things.
Studying physics was one of the most important things I have done in my life, because it made me engage with very challenging problems. I did not let anyone define to me what physics was and what it was not. The reason I was interested in physics was that it seemed all-encompassing, and I was looking at all sorts of questions around how the universe works. It taught me to put real effort into examining and thinking about those problems. And if you get even some level of understanding of those problems, it builds your confidence to be able to approach and attack almost any other problem or obstacle that you might have in your life.
Not everybody is going to do physics, I know, and they should not. But no matter what it is you are doing, I think reflecting on the more challenging problems a bit more is a good way to provide a bit of self-confidence, because it helps you to be able to unpack and examine them. If you do not do that, you can end up in panic mode for large periods of time. That is not very good for your progression, and it is not very good for your mental health either. I think it is self-confidence, which is a key thing to try and build.
Another important thing is to hold on to people in your life who help you along your journey, who can positively help you to build your confidence and build your skills, but also challenge your perspectives and give you a fresh perspective. The people I have closest to me fall in that category.
What troubles did you have progressing through your career?
There is always an element of self-doubt. If I am honest, it has always been a challenge for me to just look at the next thing I was going to get into and question whether or not I was even capable of doing it. Even when I started studying physics, I had a bit of a tough time doing that degree. I had the same sort of feelings when I started my PhD.
I think everybody has those feelings of apprehension that they have to somehow get over. I think that has been a perennial thing that I have had to deal with. But I think it is very healthy to have a little bit of that. When it becomes overwhelming, then it becomes a problem. But it also helps to keep your pride in check. If you are a little bit intimidated by what it is you are currently doing, that is a good thing.
When I moved from academia to the government, for example, and when I moved from the government into the private sector, I remember being told by lots of people: “you have been doing postdocs for five years now, you are an academic, you will never be able to do government work”. And then, 5-6 years later, when I was moving out of the government, I was being told by people in the private sector and even in academia: “you cannot come back to academia because you do not have a publication record”. And also in industry, it was like: “you have not done any industrial stuff, you cannot be working in that space”. That kind of negative sentiment is something that is a challenge that you have to get over.
During my career, I have suffered the kind of bias that we are talking about when we look at the Black Lives Matter movement. Sometimes you do not know it is happening until afterwards. Sometimes it is very much in your face. I have had several instances in my career where I have been shocked by some of the things I have heard, both directed at me, and directed to people who were not in the room at the time. I think that is something which I am recognising more now, how much of an obstacle that has been through my career. I realise it more now than I did when I was going through those things.
How did you become involved with SPRITE+?
I joined Imperial just over 6.5 years ago as the co-director for the Institute for Security, Science and Technology. We examine all kinds of cutting edge problems in security science. One of the big areas that has been emerging is around privacy and the control of identity and information. I started doing a lot of work around cybersecurity when I first joined Imperial. Together with a colleague of mine, Professor Chris Hankin, I established our research into trustworthy industrial control systems. Through the work there, we started touching on all of the factors that SPRITE+ has been set up to look at.
When you start looking at industrial control systems and cyber-physical systems, the interaction of the human being with the cyber domain and data, all of those things are very, very intertwined. We have lots of researchers working in these areas, so I have a constant touchpoint to it. My co-director Professor Bill Lee, has recently left the institute. He was the co-director of SPRITE+ when it started. I was involved in early discussions with Bill around exactly what we might achieve which SPRITE+ and I have known SPRITE+ director Professor Emma Barrett for some time. When Bill was leaving, I was asked if I would take up the co-directorship of SPRITE+. That takes us up to today.
How do you hope to influence SPRITE+ network?
I think SPRITE+ is so interesting, because we could go in a number of different directions with it. If SPRITE+ network is able to promote the careers of young researchers and address the issues of diversity, I think that would be an amazing thing for us to do.
The very subject matter that SPRITE+ is dealing with requires us to understand exactly what privacy and identity means to all sorts of people in society, different ages and different racial backgrounds and all of the other diverse things. SPRITE+ needs to encourage diversity because otherwise we will not get a proper understanding of the issue. For that reason, I think we need to be able to encourage as diverse a community of researchers as possible in this field and if SPRITE+ can do that, then that would be fantastic. I would love to be able to try and influence that.
The other thing which is fascinating to me is the interface between research that occurs in the industrial space and the academic space. I think we have some extraordinarily bright people working in industrial labs and in industrial research facilities, and in government facilities as well. It is not always the case that academia recognises that and connects with it. If we can play a role in connecting those minds together, I think we would be really achieving something quite special.
How would you describe your research in relation to SPRITE+?
It is a limited amount of time that I get to do research. One of the things I have looked at in recent years was the use of machine learning and AI for cybersecurity purposes. This is an enormous area right now: how do we feed data into machine learning and AI systems? What is the right thing to do ethically? What kind of data should we be making available to those systems? How do you decide how much data you should be giving to the various entities in your life, and the government? How much trust should you have in all of those data transactions? How can you control those transactions? Those are fascinating things which relate closely to the stuff that I have been doing on machine learning and AI for cybersecurity applications. That is the direction I want to go in terms of the research thinking that I do now. And that is the direction I think that SPRITE+ could really help with.
I think machine learning and AI is a big question of our time, because it will determine exactly how we deploy and develop this generation of machine learning-enabled technology. Everything from automated financial trading systems, to autonomous vehicles are going to be affected by this technological shift. How we protect individuals and their data is going to be extremely important to get right.
The other really big example is what is happening with COVID-19. You look at something like the NHSX app or other tracing applications that people have been trying to develop. There is this pandemic going on, but people are not entirely sure they want to give all their data away in order to try and solve it. This debate has exploded over the last few months. People are not convinced that it is a fair trade. And that is an interesting aspect.
Which of the SPRITE+ Challenge Themes can you relate to from the job role that you do? How does it impact your role?
I can relate to all of them. I think these are extremely interconnected issues. The most interesting thing in the research I have conducted over the last few years is the idea of global interconnected systems and complex systems. I am very conscious of the fact that we are living in an increasingly connected socio-technical world, where nearly all concepts that have siloed disciplines and domains are all being challenged. It is interesting to understand that all of these concepts are interconnected in some way, especially when you look at these challenge themes. Digital vulnerabilities is a key focus area for what we are doing at the Institute. It is something which I have been very interested in throughout my whole career.
Applications are open to individuals from academia and professional practice (non-academic) to attend an online sandpit on Digital Vulnerabilities in July 2021. Up to £160k of SPRITE+ funding will be made available to fund interdisciplinary projects.