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ISDS Assistant Professor Sagar Samtani Lands a National Science Foundation Grant to Study the Dark Web

By Keith Morelli

Sagar Samtani

TAMPA (April 10, 2019) -- For those researchers in the Muma College of Business who seldom apply for grants from the National Science Foundation because, well, because they usually go to scientists and engineers, meet Sagar Samtani.

A new faculty member in the college’s Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department, Samtani recently received a $175,000 Computer and Information Science and Engineering Research Initiation Initiative grant from the NSF; that is not only a first for the Muma College of Business, but a first for a business professor in the state of Florida and possibly in the nation.

Sometimes referred to as a “pre-career,” or “mini-career” award, the grant is a prestigious solo principal-investigator competitive grant that covers two years of work. It is awarded to encourage research independence early in a researcher’s career, to support untenured faculty or research scientists during the first three years after earning a PhD.

“There is a stigma out there that business schools can’t get NSF funding, that they only go to engineering or computer sciences,” Samtani said. “But I’m saying business schools can compete with the big boys in getting these grants.

 “It’s like seed funding that comes early in a researcher’s career,” he said. “Every assistant professor should apply for these types of awards.”

The funding, Samtani said, will go toward his research into “the use, development and evaluation of artificial intelligence-based approaches rooted in linguistics and deep-learning methodologies on hacker forums in the ‘dark web’ to identify emerging threats for advanced proactive cyber-threat intelligence capabilities.”

Samtani’s research interests lie in probing the dark web and the threats it carries for consumers and corporations. He already has established collaborations with a number of domestic and international entities that share threat intelligence across 800 government, law enforcement and industry partners and that played a part in landing the grant.

He also will work with Cyber Florida to disseminate selected results via annual conference and research symposiums. He hopes that these partnerships will accelerate the time it takes to put research into practice and education.

Samtani said that doing impactful research is difficult, but competing for and being awarded grants is just as time consuming and nerve wracking.

NSF funds often are won by academic groups outside of colleges of business, Samtani said.

“However, winning this proposal shows that the Muma College of Business is executing research that aligns with current federal and national initiatives,” he said. “More importantly, it suggests that we can compete with the larger research community to attain prestigious funding to make a positive societal impact.”

Samtani identified the NSF grant as a potential opportunity while he was still a PhD student at the University of Arizona in December 2017. Upon his arrival here in the summer of 2018, he began a collaboration with his assigned faculty mentor and department chair, Manish Agrawal. Samtani said that Agrawal’s “strong support and knowledge of the NSF review process was valuable in composing a carefully worded proposal.”

As part of his support, Agrawal wrote a letter of recommendation that Samtani believed was essential to the success of the proposal. One reviewer lauded the letter, noting that, “The letter of support from the institution is strong, and explains why the (pre-career) funds would have an impact in the (Samtani’s) career.”

In addition to working closely with Agrawal, Samtani teamed up with Peggy Allen, unit research administrator for the Muma College of Business, who assisted him in making the grant application. That the grant application was successful, she said, shows that business researchers can win NSF grants.

“We’re hoping this will prompt more faculty to apply for NSF grants and other awards,” she said. “It can be done. I am here to help our faculty by identifying financial opportunities to support their research domains.”

Allen’s responsibilities extend much further than helping the application process. After the funds are awarded, she sets up the project’s grant budget release, prepares budget transfers and sub-accounts and remaining spending authority reports. She starts processes that ensure federal effort reports are certified prior to the deadlines; monitors grant activities throughout the life of the project and handles close-out reports. She also makes sure the grant management procedure adheres to federal and state statutes and university guidelines.

“She was so helpful and absolutely invaluable in the grant proposal preparation process,” Samtani said. “I’m very grateful to have her here. She is a unique asset to the Muma College of Business and one that many business schools would be excited to have. She can help our research faculty to do what they were hired to do, specifically in proposing and executing research with impact.”

Allen’s knowledge about the strengths and strategies of the Muma College of Business helped secure the grant, he said.

“Her detailed understanding of nuances of the specific aspects within the NSF proposals was critical,” Samtani said. “Moreover, she is very familiar with the USF procedures and guidelines regarding proposal preparation and submission.”

“The dedication of our faculty is amazing,” said Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem. “To get this National Science Foundation grant is not only a remarkable achievement for Dr. Samtani, but it reflects on the world-class quality of faculty that the Muma College of Business attracts.”

“This award also puts on full display the high level of research we conduct here and how we are helping our real world partners make the decisions that result in the world becoming a better place in which to live. This research, when presented in the classroom here, also provides our students with the knowledge and the tools they will need to ensure success in their careers and lives once they graduate.”