Spotlight Series: Women in Technology

Featuring Associate Professor, Dr. Deniz Gurkan

There is a natural doubt in defining one's role due to environmental factors, or history, which is life as unfair as it is. However, I believe that there is something in everybody's inner self that we cannot help but to do, be, or pursue. Just listen to that interest, passion, and turn it into a goal. Excel in what you do; otherwise, there is no fun in doing it! — Professor Deniz Gurkan

In celebration of National Women's History Month, the University of Houston College of Technology is recognizing women who are "game-changers." The world of technology is dynamic, with challenging career opportunities for women where they can leverage their expertise and innovation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and the social sciences.

This feature is the first of a series that highlights leading women in the College of Technology, whose contributions and experiences are empowering our students, blazing new trails, and making history and advancing our world.

Dr. Deniz Gurkan is an associate professor in the computer engineering technology program and teaches the senior-level computer networking course along with network programming, network security, and network management graduate level courses. Additionally, Gurkan coordinates the engineering technology Master of Science network communications focus area degree requirements for College of Technology graduate students.

Supported by research awards through the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and various industry partners, she has formed collaborations with graduate students in the Master of Science thesis track and PhD students in the Computer Science program at the University of Houston.

Q: What is your background and how did your interest in technology begin?

A: I earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in electrical engineering from the Bilkent University in Turkey and completed my PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. After teaching for a year in the Claremont Graduate University Applied Mathematics and the California State University, Long Beach Electrical Engineering programs, I joined UH as a professor in 2004. My interest was a practical decision we made with my dad at my high school graduation. I wanted to become a mathematician because I just loved math. Ironically, Dad's opinion was that studying math would "only" make me a professor and with an engineering degree, I should have an industry option as well. In order to have a diverse set of career options, we agreed on my pursuit of math intensive engineering careers. At the time, electrical and aerospace engineering programs were at the top of the list in their math requirements. Since we did not have a competitive aerospace program in Turkey, I picked electrical engineering.

A completely new world opened up for me within engineering. Even though I continued to have a passion for math, when I came to the US for my PhD degree, I decided to diversify my skillset even further by joining a research group, completely based on experimental work at USC. I wanted to build systems, measure performance, and learn to design and troubleshoot. After being immersed in math and modeling-based analysis of systems in my studies back in Turkey, I wanted to work with real systems in action. Building and experimenting with real systems is more expensive than the modeling we were able to conduct in Turkey. I joined a multi-million-dollar lab at USC to achieve my dreams of learning hands-on aspects of system design.

Although I often worked more than 80 hours per week, I had a lot of fun with a huge research lab group of students from all over the world. We worked in shifts to share the measurement gear during paper submission deadlines. Due to the setup time requirements of my experiments, I had to consume two 8-hour shifts, with the first eight hours for setup and another eight for measurements. The excitement of making your system work, designing your own machine parts, various components, and testing for verification of objectives is just priceless. The troubleshooting process is the best learning experience that one can have.

After my PhD studies, easier access to system design problems through interesting and real-life applications fueled my pathway into Technology. We develop software systems with repeatable experimentation capabilities in network and distributed systems research. The excitement and exhilaration associated with working in this field is more than I had ever before experienced. My students drive many projects while I have the privilege to collaborate with them and I am able to develop and tinker as well. This is the perfect time to be a student in Technology since possibilities are endless and the intellectual reward is so high. I feel lucky to be a professor, which is synonymous to being paid to learn new things.

Q: You have earned more than $5 million in federal and industry grants. Tell us about the milestones you have achieved.

A: We helped build a nationwide networking testbed by being the point of contact for the Texas region for the National Science Foundation's $50 million Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) project. My lab now has an open source software repository to raise the measurement and repeatable experimentation capabilities for the worldwide distributed networked computing research community.

In addition, we have created effective and hands-on teaching methods for computer networking courses in the graduate and undergraduate levels, using the advanced experimentation infrastructure and software suites that change our learning experiences toward better matching with the current demands from networks and the engineers who run them.

Our outreach efforts to high school computer science and career technology education tracks will help integrate our teaching methods into the curriculum and fuel the discussion of curriculum design and education policy. I am very excited about working with high school teachers to learn how to accommodate different learning styles, inspire, and engage students into our field.

Q: Describe your research focus and tell us what sparked your interest?

A: We are working on systems that envision deployment at any location where a network policy may be enforced on the flow of packets. This changes our understanding and working principles with networks completely! Given a graph composed of vertices of network devices and edges of links, we are working towards creation of new vertices to accomplish features for application messages, which change the links, creating demand-based overlays. Network programming in its true sense can happen. The network function insertion opened up new avenues to measure networks more effectively with repeatable performance and behavior guarantees.

More importantly, we are able to teach networking principles with a more hands-on approach, focusing on protocol behavior rather than on a particular solution to issues. A design mindset can formulate on "what would you like your network to provide to you?" rather than "given this network, how can you pass your packets through?" This is exciting work as it involves thinking in a computational manner rather than the reactive and operational manner.

Q: What is your vision for how your work change and advance the future?

A: Our work will change the future and advance our field in multiple ways. Software infrastructure on repeatable experimentation framework will help the computing community provide results in their research work with wide implications for industry and academia.

Any PhD student's work will have a continuation potential starting from a solid software base that works. This advances the science while also maintaining a credible outcome reporting to industry where feasibility and performance metrics are required for crucial business decisions. The function insertion framework will change the way we design and operate networks. There will be opportunities to design networks for security through policy enforcement on a micro scale, only where needed, and on the desired aspects of specific applications. We envision drastically alleviating the burden on securing applications on end-devices, which will create a completely new industry and thought mechanism.

Q: What significant events or circumstances have played a major role in your personal and career goals and why?

A: My undergraduate education in Turkey was the definitive foundation. The faculty at Bilkent University were passionate people who loved what they studied. I was able to work on a computer for the first time in my life at Bilkent as a freshman. With a 24-hour open library and computer labs, we worked hard and learned continuously. My desire for hands-on experiences with systems led me toward pursuing a PhD at the University of Southern California, which offered state of the art technology in the lab.

My current job at UH is the biggest blessing in my career because I have freedom to choose what I want to work on next with amazing students! I cannot imagine any better way to work.

The personal balance with my family empowers me to pursue my dreams without reservations. I am a mother of two amazing children. My husband is an amazing father and partner. My parents also immigrated to the US after their first grandchild was born.

Q: What is your personal advice for young women to be successful in STEM-driven careers?

A: Pursue your true passion. Determine what motivates you to do, become, and work. I know this is complicated and sometimes hard to discover. There is a natural doubt in defining one's role due to environmental factors, or history, which is life as unfair as it is. However, I believe that there is something in everybody's inner self that we cannot help but to do, be, or pursue. Just listen to that interest, passion, and turn it into a goal. If you do not have a passion for the subject matter, or what you are doing, it will be impossible to work very hard on it when things get tough. And, things will get tough if you want to excel in anything you do. Excel in what you do; otherwise, there is no fun in doing it!

Find people in that career, position, and talk to them. If you cannot name it, talk to even more people so you can name it at some point, or get closer to naming it. If one door closes, go to another and never ever give up talking to people. I can name multiple mentors in my life who serve different aspects of my interests, goals, passions; and, they still evolve. New people can come into our lives as we change, our interests evolve, and as we mature.

The best way to learn about anything is through reading a book about it. Anything you can think of, somebody has already gone through the pain and suffering and even decided to write about it. Or, anything that you want to learn about, there is a book from the subject expert. So, read continuously and about everything. Our backgrounds will fall short in expressing ourselves as we set a new path to ourselves. A book will help identify them.

Work hard to be good in math. I do not believe there is such a thing as "inherently being not good in math." This has nothing to do with intelligence; it is all about sufficient amount of studying that needs to be done to get good at math. With current internet and library resources, everything is at the tip of our fingers in many media forms: video, audio, online books, online courses.