Nadya (Travinin) Bliss is the Director of the Global Security Initiative and Professor at the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. Bliss received her bachelor and master’s degrees in computer science from Cornell University.
Why did you choose to study at Cornell?
As a little girl, I wanted to be a mathematician. As I got a little bit older, I was looking for something that allowed me to apply computational thinking to a broad range of problems, so I started looking at computer science (CS) as the field of study. I applied to top CS programs for undergrad and was choosing between Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science and Cornell College of Engineering. I took the opportunity to visit after I was accepted. Cornell just left such a positive impression. It was the place for me. Nothing against CMU, but I did not get that same feeling. It was actually kind of magical – going into the visits, I was leaning towards CMU. But after the visit, it wasn’t even a contest. Cornell completely won me over. Plus, I thought, if for some reason I decide not to stick with CS, Cornell is such a great place, that I have a lot more choices of top programs. Though of course, I stuck with CS. I am a geek. Through and through.
What are some of your fondest memories as an undergraduate?
It is hard to capture how much positive impact Cornell had on me. It is probably not shocking that for a geeky girl who loves math, high school is not typically the greatest of experiences. At Cornell, it was ok to be smart. To care about academics. To be interested in algorithms and philosophy. So much of my personal growth in confidence came from my time there. There is also something about just the spectacular beauty of the place. I have quite a few memories of pulling all nighters at the Upson computer lab and then walking back to North Campus and watching the sunrise passing by Libe Slope. I can’t capture that feeling, but it is pretty amazing. Also, my freshman year roommate became my best friend. Our friendship is now more than 20 years old. We were maid of honors in each other’s weddings and are now, while not in the same city, watching our kids grow.
Why did you decide to stay on for your master’s degree in computer science?
I am one of those weird people that has always known what she wanted to do. I have thought that at some point, I would get a PhD (and I did), but I wasn’t ready quite yet. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to get more experience. One of the things that, in retrospect, is fantastic about the MEng program is that you get to really work indepth on a project. And there were multiple options – you could do an extended project for a class or you could work on your own with a faculty member. I did both and learned a ton – one was for a distributed systems class and one was with Professor Claire Cardie on Bayesian classifiers for noun phrase co-reference (a natural language processing problem) – so I got some pretty serious exposure to building software systems and working on research. Also, the master degree made me incredibly competitive on the job market. I was interviewing during the fall of 2001, around the time the internet bubble burst. It was not a great time to look for jobs, yet I had more than seven offers – ranging from the financial sector to private industry to government to research and development laboratories.
How do you feel Cornell prepared you for your current profession?
It is hard for me to think of a way that Cornell didn’t prepare me for my current profession (or really my career path). The computer science program was very challenging and highly rigorous, and I worked incredibly hard. I appreciated that experience. The growth in personal confidence was really significant, too. And just the resources were fantastic, from dining halls (which are really above all else anywhere) to career services. There is also something to be said for just being taught, even in undergrad classes, by rock stars of the field. For example, my Theory of Computation class was taught by a Turing award winner, Professor Juris Hartmanis. Not only do you get to learn from the people that are actually writing the textbooks and the foundational papers in the field, but you get to meet these people and see them in office hours and the hallways and just realize that they are people. It really gives you this sense that you can also do great things.
What are some of the best things about Cornell computer science?
I have always loved math so my favorite part of computer science was algorithms and the more theoretical/mathematical aspects of the curriculum. In my experience, I have also found that a strong foundation in theory and algorithms is what persists and allows you to grow in your career. Tools come and go. (Computer) languages come and go. There are different hype cycles. However, the foundation that Cornell has given me still feels fresh 20 years later. I wrote an article a few years ago on cyber security in which I noted that everything I needed to learn about cyber security I learned in CS513 (the master level computer security course taught by Fred Schneider). It was also fantastic to be exposed to some amazing faculty – doing research with Prof Cardie or TA’ing algorithms for Prof Kleinberg – those experiences definitely shaped me – both in expanding my knowledge base and also in showing that you can be a brilliant accomplished person and still be kind, respectful, and just a good human.
What are you doing now and what do you love about it?
My entire career has been in defense and security focused research and development. I started out as an assistant technical staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and quickly moved up through the ranks. I would credit my Cornell education and research experience with building a significant research portfolio and breaking the PhD ceiling. About 10 years ago, I officially moved into leadership – first at MIT LL, where I ran the Computing and Analytics Group, and now at ASU, where I run a pan-university institute-level activity focused on defense and security research. In under four years, we have grown to about 150 faculty, 3 centers, and a $20M research portfolio. Even though I don’t do my own research, I still think very much like a computer scientist – it is that foundation of rigorous algorithmic thinking from Cornell that has supported me both in my growth as a researcher and as a leader/executive. My favorite part about what I do is the “and” – we do amazing, cutting edge research andapply it to some of the most challenging problems that both our government and private industry face.
About a year ago, I started my three-year term on the Computing Community Consortium. Our job on the CCC is to work broadly with the computing community on setting the long-term vision for computer science research. One of the council members is Greg Morrisett – the current dean of Computing and Information Sciences at Cornell. Funny thing is, he was one of my professors when I was an undergrad, for Computer Organization and Design (the computer architecture course). He was an incredibly tough professor (prelims same day as a due date for a giant project milestone), but turns out he is a pretty awesome human as well – which as a Cornellian, is par for the course, I guess.