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Graduate Q&A With David Heath: From Research Engineer to Ph.D.

On Friday, David Heath will take the stage and receive his Ph.D. from the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy (SCP), where he was advised by SCP Senior Associate Chair and Associate Professor Vladimir Kolesnikov.

Heath received his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science from Georgia Tech and began working as a research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) after his undergraduate graduation.

Why did you choose to pursue a Ph.D.?

Working at GTRI exposed me to individuals who value higher education and who engage with challenging research problems. I soon learned that these types of challenging problems kept me excited about my work, and so I started thinking about a Ph.D.

While the fact that I already lived in Atlanta certainly factored into my decision to apply to Georgia Tech, the far more important factor was Georgia Tech’s strength as an academic institution. Georgia Tech’s computer science program is continuously among the strongest programs in the world. When I was accepted to the program, it was a no-brainer to attend.

How did you choose your area of study?

I stumbled upon cryptography and multi-party computation (MPC) by a happy accident.

Early in my Ph.D., I studied programming languages (PL), but after a few years my PL advisor left Georgia Tech. I was collaborating with Associate Professor Kolesnikov on a small project when my advisor left, and I began studying MPC under Kolesnikov. I soon found that I loved the subject area, and to my surprise I was able to achieve relative success.

When I reflect on it, I am always amazed that I was so lucky to stumble into a situation where I had a research advisor with whom I work well and a subject area that I understand and enjoy.

You never know where success will come from!

What research projects have you been working on?

My research area allows parties to collaboratively compute directly on encrypted data. Since the data remains encrypted, we can build collaborative computations that both are powerful and preserve data privacy by using MPC.

For example, a server could encrypt a database and a client could encrypt a database query. The two parties could then work together to run the query inside MPC, and the server would learn nothing except for the query result. 

Cryptographers have known for decades how to achieve such computations, at least in theory. In practice, MPC has so far remained relatively niche. My overarching research goal was to bring this subject into wider practice. I believe that this will enable engineers to build a new class of useful privacy-preserving applications that were previously impossible due to privacy and legal concerns.

What are your plans after Georgia Tech?

I love my research area, sharing ideas, and the academic culture in general. I hope to continue my career as an academic, and I am currently working to obtain a faculty position at a strong research-oriented university.

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