Sonya Johnson

 Homeland Security Fellowship Winner

December 17, 2004

This fall Sonya Reed Johnson, a second-year ECE graduate student, won a competitive 2004 U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Fellowship that covers her tuition and her stipend for up to three years. She was one of 105 award winners chosen from nearly 900 applicants, according to a DHS news release. Working with her advisor, Assistant Professor of ECE and CS Priya Narasimhan, Sonya's security-related research centers around the objectives of the DHS, including benchmarking the survivability of secure systems and using the results to develop a new breed of proactively survivable distributed infrastructures.

Sonya was a National Merit Finalist in her hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada, and received a national scholarship for her engineering studies at Boston University, where she graduated summa cum laude. There, she worked in systems administration for two summers as a co-op in Lincoln Laboratory. This summer, she will intern at a DHS facility as a requirement of her fellowship. Let's join Sonya as she describes her research and why Carnegie Mellon was her top choice:

How does your research on evaluating the survivability of software systems relate to homeland security?

Because software systems are used in the nation's information infrastructure, such as transportation, communication, and financial services, they are depended on to work properly. However, many are not tolerant to accidental faults or malicious attacks.

We are presently working on a survivability benchmark which will allow users to evaluate and compare systems that claim to tolerate faults and attacks. Currently, there is no way to compare such systems because measurements tend to be specific to each system and quantify performance rather than survivability. With this benchmark, developers will be able to choose systems based on their survivability needs and make the information infrastructure more secure.

What does it feel like to be a fellowship winner?

It feels good to have outside validation that the research problem I'm working on is important.

How did you know you wanted to be an engineer?

I've always been good at analytical problem solving and figuring out how things work, so engineering just seemed like the perfect fit.

What attracted you to ECE at CMU?

ECE has many great professors and top researchers in their field. The department is very strong in systems and security, which was a big draw for me. Also, I met Priya when I came here for the open house weekend and knew that she would be a great advisor to work with.

Tell us about one of your favorite courses:

One of my favorite courses so far was Greg Ganger's Operating Systems course (18-841, Advanced Operating Systems & Distributed Systems). I took it my first semester here. It was a small class and very different from any of my undergraduate courses. It consisted of discussions on topics from papers we read and it felt very laid back, but I learned a lot.

What student organizations do you belong to?

I am involved in Women in ECE (WinECE) and am a member of the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society.

What are your plans after graduation?

I'll probably go into industry or work in a research lab.

From the Professor's Desk: Why should we study a software system's survivability?

Most survivable systems tend to evaluate their performance in the fault-free or attack-free scenario, which is, after all, not the most interesting or the most relevant case. Sonya's research is important because we currently have no objective way of evaluating or comparing the survivability of various systems under a variety of different kinds of accidental and malicious faults. Her current project will enable us to understand, in a quantitative way, the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to secure distributed systems so that we can design them in a better way.

Priya Narasimhan, Assistant Professor of ECE and CS

Sonya at the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, CA.

Sonya at the Hoover Dam, which is near her hometown.

Sonya and her fiance at Fallingwater.

Assistant Professor of ECE and CS Priya Narasimhan