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Welcome Elaine Shi

  • New Faculty (2015)

Elaine Shi, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Cornell, believes academic researchers can play a leading role in creating secure and protected software platforms for cryptocurrencies and smart contracts. By now, many people have heard of Bitcoin, even if the general population’s understanding of just what Bitcoin is may be a bit lacking. But Bitcoin is not the only cryptocurrency in circulation. Nor are cryptocurrencies the only applications that rely on a combination of unassailable privacy and transparency.

Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies in which cryptographic techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank. Smart contracts are computer programs that can automatically execute the terms of a contract. Some people predict that smart contracts might one day replace banks and lawyers for handling many common financial transactions. For cryptocurrencies and smart contracts to ever be widely accepted, they need to be both secure and transparent.

“Originally, cryptography was about securing communications during warfare,” says Shi. “But now, with the rise of cloud computing, cryptocurrencies, and smart contracts, cryptography needs to mesh seamlessly with programming.” Shi, who has received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) “Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace” program, aims to be a leader in the field of efficient, provably secure systems.

“I hope that my research can change the way people program cryptography,” says Shi. “In existing legacy systems, security was not always the main goal of programming languages. But new systems will have security-by-design built right into the programming language used to create them.” Shi says that it is very hard for developers to create secure systems—even strong developers. “One of my goals is create programming protocols so developers can continue to do what they do and my protocols will make their system secure.”

Shi first became interested in computers and coding when some of her friends joined a computer club in middle school in her hometown of Hangzhou, China. “My friends were joining the computer club, so I did too. And I discovered quickly that I liked it,” says Shi. By the time she was in high school, Shi was entering programming contests and doing very well. “Some of those same friends are now in the Bay Area, working for Google and other companies.”

Shi received her undergraduate degree from Tsinghua University. She then earned her Master’s and her Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University. Shi was a member of the research staff at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and a research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley before joining the faculty of the University of Maryland (UMD). Shi has published more than 50 academic papers. She has also received a Sloan Research Fellowship, Google Research Awards in 2013 and 2014, and several best paper awards.

When Shi had the chance to join the faculty at Cornell, she was very excited. “Before I interviewed here I knew many people’s work well,” says Shi. “I couldn’t wait to meet them. They are some of the most well-respected people in their fields. The opportunities for collaboration here are amazing. Cybersecurity is interdisciplinary by its nature and Cornell has a great reputation for interdisciplinary collaborations.” Shi would like to commercialize the technologies developed in her lab and make a real impact on the world of cybersecurity. “I find the academic world intellectually stimulating and I have the freedom to work on whatever I am interested in. Cornell has the world’s top programming languages group and also the best security group in the country. I am very excited to be here.”

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