Sophia Abraham

Sophia with a WISP5

USF Senior Receives Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship at a Prominent National Laboratory

Sophia Abraham’s interest in research became a catalyst for success on a national stage. She is a National Institute of Standards and Technology Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (NIST SURF) recipient and a research fellow in the Cryptographic Technology Group of the Computer Security Division at NIST.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) supports research and development for the smallest of technologies to the largest and most complex of human-made creations—from nanoscale devices so tiny that tens of thousands can fit on the end of a single human hair, to earthquake-resistant skyscrapers and global communication networks. Recipients of this award conduct research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology at one of two locations: Boulder, Colorado or at Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Sophia’s research involved the implementation of lightweight cryptographic algorithms, which transform important pieces of data into random symbols, signs and characters so if they were accessed, they would be unreadable. Those pieces of data can then be decoded by using a "secret key" - a long random string of numbers and characters that, when used correctly, extract the original text in a readable form. This method protects important data during transmission.

These algorithms establish secure communication in a system used to track objects, people or other items using small tags that respond to radio waves (radio frequency identification – or RFID) in a wireless communication technology that utilizes electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags. Tags are similar to those used to prevent theft on the inside covers of library books.

Sophia, a native of Tampa, Florida and a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at USF, was challenged to articulate her research goals as part of the NIST SURF application process. “Prior to applying, I had many interests and difficulty discerning the obscure nature of my future,” she says. “The application process required me to align my passions with past experiences and potential ambitions.”

Her desire to continue learning led her to train herself in machine learning and artificial intelligence. In 2017, Sophia completed a six-month internship at SOFWERX, a technology firm in Tampa. During the internship, she worked on two defense-related projects. Her computer programming skills improved the fighting capabilities of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). In one of her internship projects, she used a brain-inspired system which replicates the way humans learn (artificial neural network) to enable a computer to detect the presence of an AK47 weapon.

In 2018, Sophia was USF’s only nominee from the College of Engineering for NIST-SURF.

During the application process, she worked closely with ONS and its director, Dr. Sayandeb Basu. “Dr. Basu assisted a great deal in the development of my personal statement and keeping track of deadlines and necessary documents for the application process’ limited time schedule,” Sophia says. “He encouraged me in ways I never imagined by believing in me as an individual and challenging me to push beyond my comfort zone and grow my understanding of self-worth and competency.”

She advises potential applicants to never make the mistake of assuming they won’t have what it takes to win an award. “It is easy to erect an unrealistic concept of a national scholarship recipient in our minds and then perceive oneself as a diametrical opposite,” says Sophia.  “I would advise applicants to bridge that mental gap and focus on the unique aspects of oneself, whether it be underlying motivations or an unconventional set of experiences, rather than try to present a false self.”

In the future, she plans to attend graduate school and study computational science and engineering. She wants to become a professor and study real-time data regarding the neural systems and behavioral processes that underlie natural cognition.

Sophia hopes her work will contribute to the advancement of doctor-supervised programs designed for people with diseases, injury, or disorders of the nervous system with an emphasis on secure infrastructures to protect them from external access.

In her final semester at USF, Sophia utilized her expertise and talent as an intern at Custom Mobility in St. Petersburg, Florida. Custom Mobility is a unique organization that caters to the needs of people with severe ambulatory disabilities. During the internship, she learned about the human side of engineering. “I developed a deeper understanding of patient perspectives and interactive challenges with devices,” she says. “It was a great experience.”

In addition to her unique experience at Custom Mobility, she joined the Advancing Machine and Human Reasoning Lab with Dr. John Licato and the Neuro-Machine Interaction Lab with Dr. Marvin Andujar. “They took a chance on a mechanical engineering student,” she says. “I sincerely appreciate the opportunity and am grateful for their continual guidance and support. They are incredible mentors!”

Sophia has also applied for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP), which recognizes exceptional work in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Her research goals include positive outcomes for humanity, and she looks forward to broadening the scope of her work in the coming years.

This story is featured in the 2017-2018 edition of Legacies.

Did you know?

The NIST-SURF Program is designed to inspire undergraduate students to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) through a unique research experience. This program supports the NIST mission of promoting U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement of science, standards, and technology in ways which enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.

Over the course of 11 weeks, SURF students contribute to the ongoing research of one of the six NIST facilities, which are: Communications Technology Laboratory (CTL), Engineering Laboratory (EL), Information Technology Laboratory (ITL), Material Measurement Laboratory (MML), NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR), and Physical Measurement Laboratory (PML), which now includes projects in the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology.

Since 1993, SURF students from across the country have had the opportunity to gain valuable, hands-on experience, working with cutting edge technology in one of the world's leading research organizations and home to three Nobel Prize winners.