#HUSpotlight: In Conversation with Cryptographer, Dr. Elena Andreeva

Many of us read detective stories or spy stories since childhood and I find all of them to be very intriguing. There is always some mystery to solve and that is where the science of cryptography comes in. You have to solve mathematical puzzles and deciphering them gives you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Hailing from Leuven, Belgium, Dr. Elena Andreeva visited Habib University to introduce the realm of Cryptography to the HU students and community. Through instructive classes and interactive workshops, the students were familiarized with the art of keeping secrets through coding and decoding processes. While on the other hand, we decided to crack the code and delved into the life and work of our cryptic virtuoso, so as to find out more about her and to learn about her inspiration and experiences of how it feels to live and teach in Pakistan.

Please enlighten us about your academic/professional journey and interests.

EA: I am a postdoctoral researcher at the COSIC Research Group at KU Leuven, Belgium. I completed my Ph.D. thesis on the topic, “Domain Extenders for Cryptographic Hash Functions” under the supervision of Prof. Bart Preneel. My main research interests in the field of cryptography include Provable Security, Hash Functions, Block Ciphers, and Authenticated Encryption Schemes.

What fascinated you towards Cryptography?  

EA: For me, there have been several factors behind this choice. While many of us read detective stories or spy stories during childhood, I remember that I always used to find them intriguing and I took delight in solving mysteries, which I believe brought me to this decision. Cryptography goes in the same direction. You have to solve some mathematical puzzles and it requires a lot of logical thinking which is usually not the case in other computer science classes. While studying cryptography or secret writing, you have to look at things from a different perspective and you always have to look for the weaknesses in the system, devise ways to combat attack on security, etc. It is always open to new challenges and new directions.

So have you always enjoyed solving puzzles since your childhood?

EA: Always is a big word, I would say…but I have found it interesting most of the time. It gives you a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment once you are done cracking a puzzle.

How has your experience of teaching been at Habib University?

EA: I am glad that I had an opportunity to teach here since I find a good environment at the campus. It is quite self-contained in a way. You have access to almost anything and everything and it is reachable for everyone, for instance in terms of accessibility to facilities and people. The community is friendly and cooperative and you can easily interact with each other. I also found students to be inquisitive for knowledge and very motivated to be here, which is a good thing. They know why they are here and most of them do understand what they are doing. Even I learnt several new things from them. I can see a strive for knowledge here and I hope they succeed in achieving their goals of keeping themselves content in their lives, knowing who they are, and how do they understand the world. With respect to Cryptography, when I had graduated, my professor told us that our title is also an obligation towards society in general. Having particular knowledge is not only about pushing boundaries but it is also a responsibility in terms of how you are going to push these boundaries and in what ways, and to also analyze the huge societal impact of your research. It is very important to carry some kind of moral duty and obligation particularly in our field of research where things can be highly misused and abused. We should carry some accountability as knowledgeable people.

Talking about living and teaching in Pakistan, are there any interesting memories you would like to share with us?

EA: I found Pakistani people to be very welcoming and accommodating. It has been an amazing experience for me. However, I always had some ‘security issues’ in mind.

What is it that you like to do in your free time?

EA: I like to paint, swim, and go scuba diving.

Are these paintings cryptic as well?

EA: [chuckles]  Not really. For me they are not, but they might be for others. As far as I am concerned, they are a source of self-expression for me.

How do you feel about the research facilities being offered in our country as compared to the ones provided at Belgian universities?

EA: I think the University has ample facilities and I do not see any major thing lacking.

What advice would you give to the students interested in pursuing a career in Cryptography?

EA: I would tell them to not be afraid of the challenges that they might encounter during the initial months of their research. I will also advise them that it is not going to be easy but it is going to be rewarding and they should never get discouraged easily. They should go for it and be curious all the time. The students should be able to think out-of-the-box because one of the main qualities of a good researcher is to think differently. The only way to move towards progress, innovation, and something more interesting requires opening doors to new concepts and ideas and not sticking to the conventional wisdom. Hence, students are advised to try stretching the boundaries of conventional knowledge.


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