Interested in Working With Me?

If you are reading this, you might be interested in working with me as a PhD student. Wonderful! I put this together for a couple of reasons: (1) I want to be transparent, both to increase the chances of a good fit and to keep myself accountable, and (2) I acknowledge that it might be a little tricky to figure out what I’m about just by looking at my publications.

Before emailing me about working with me, I would appreciate it if you could take the time to read this page and reflect on whether or not we would be a good fit.

As you can see, I do not tend to write briefly—apologies in advance.

My Interests

I am an applied cryptographer who is currently in the process of unpacking what it means to do human-centered cryptography. This means that I use the technical tools provided by cryptography to do work at the intersection of many subdisciplines, including theoretical cryptography, systems security, usable security, and cybersecurity policy. I am also interested in the emerging area of CS+Law and have co-taught a law school class.

As a corollary of having interests at this intersection, my published work might appear to be a little broad. I actively work on several core technical areas, including secure multiparty computation (MPC), zero knowledge (ZK), and steganography. I also work on building new cryptosystems (with a focus on social accountability) and studying how end users will interact with cryptosystems.

Two popular areas that are not first order interests of mine are blockchains and privacy preserving machine learning. There is a lot of fantastic work going on in these areas, but neither currently features significantly in what I hope to focus on in the near future. If you find yourself primarily drawn to these areas, we may not be the best fit.

Who Would Fit Well With Me?

Because the meat of the work I do is cryptography, I’m looking for students who are interested in investing in learning the foundational skills of modern cryptography—including protocol design, definition writing, proof writing, and implementation. If you aren’t interested in spending time getting into the technical weeds of cryptography, we probably aren’t a great fit. If you are most interested in the usability of cryptography stuff I have been working on, you might want to consider applying to work with one of my collaborators (eg. Elissa Redmiles, Allison McDonald, or Michelle Mazurek) and we can discuss the potential of some kind of co-advising arrangement.

Some other indicators that we might be a good match:

What is Applied Cryptography?

Applied cryptography, as a term, only really makes sense when it is compared to the alternative — theoretical cryptography (or cryptographic theory). The latter is a branch of CS Theory, while applied cryptography occupies a space between Theory and Systems.

Applied cryptography can sometimes feel like a grab-bag of a field, because in practice there are many different ways/motivations for studying applied cryptography. Some folks are primarily driven by making cryptographic primitives efficient enough to run in the real world—that is, they are a cryptographer who cares about constants more than they care about asymptotics. Others are motivated to build new things with cryptography that have either commercial or social implications. For example, not just how to build efficient MPC, but also what to do with efficient MPC or figuring out how the study of MPC needs to change in order to enable new applications. The divide between these two is not absolute and most applied cryptographers do both, as both drive important contributions to the field.

My work in applied cryptography is motivated by the observation, best articulated by Phil Rogaway, that “cryptography rearranges power… [making it] an inherently political tool.” Put another way, cryptography provides a formal language with which we can reason about power. As such, I try to study cryptography directly within political and social contexts. This means building cryptosystems whose requirements are explicitly shaped by events in the world, and I’m most drawn to cryptography with requirements that are explicitly social in nature (as opposed to commercial).

This particular brand of applied cryptography requires becoming a little bit of a generalist, in that you need to be familiar with lots of different branches of cryptography. This is because you never know what primitive you will need to construct the next system, so knowing your options is key. The best way to do this is to go to all the seminars you can, and actually try to retain some of the information you hear. There’s too much cryptography to be an expert in everything, but it’s possible to have a rough idea of the new exciting ideas coming out of the theory world. This process can be (and sound) intimidating, but don’t worry — there’ll be plenty of resources and support available to make it approachable.

Potential Upsides of Working With Me

I hope to support my students as best I can. Here are some upsides you can expect when working with me:

Potential Downsides of Working With Me

Grad school can be a hard endeavor. When things are going well, your advisor should not be an additional source of hardship. In an attempt to be forthright and transparent, I acknowledge that there are ways in which I need to continue growing. Here are some potential downsides of working with me:

Concluding Thoughts

Ok. You read the thing. Now what?

Take a little bit of time to digest the above and consider if we are a good fit. If you think so, you should apply to the CS PhD program at UMD, marking me as a potential advisor. I strongly suggest writing your research statement in a way that will clearly demonstrate why we would be a good fit, informed by this post. If you want to chat with me about the PhD, you can send me an email with the following:

If it seems like there's potential, we can find time to chat and discuss more.