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Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Lara Deek

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If you use a smartphone, tablet, laptop, smart watch, or even Google Glass to access the Internet, then you know how valuable wireless networks are. However, with increasingly more individuals using wireless networks for transmitting and receiving data, these networks are becoming overcrowded (like the 405 freeway during rush hour). Luckily, we have students at UCSB working to solve this very problem.

Lara Deek, a Ph.D. candidate in the Computer Science department, is conducting research on designing more efficient and powerful wireless systems for emerging wireless networks. Lara has a B.S. in Computer and Communications Engineering from the American University of Beirut. Read on to learn more about Lara's research and her plans for being at the forefront of innovation in wireless solutions.

Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.

Lara Deek profileLara DeekMy research focuses on designing resource efficient systems for emerging wireless networks. This means that I find the next-generation technology in the wireless world that has significant potential to give us higher data rates and a better user experience, and I design systems that are able to efficiently achieve that promised potential. Achieving the full potential increase in bandwidth of these technologies is challenging and requires a fundamental understanding of how these technologies work and how best to exploit their bandwidth capacity. I use my knowledge base and expertise to design solutions to take full advantage of that potential.

Over the past decade, we have seen wireless networks gain considerable momentum over wired connections to become the primary mode of communication and Internet connectivity. I believe that through the design of efficient wireless systems, we can not only improve the state of current wireless networks, but also advance and impact a number of disciplines within and beyond computer science, leading to novel technologies and relevant research directions. Google Glass, for example, which has profound impact on society, is enabled through wireless connectivity.

It is exciting how the world is becoming more connected through wireless networks and how global interactions and events are occurring in real time. The improvement in wireless systems has and will continue to push the frontier of what is possible using the wireless medium. My vision is to work on the solutions that address the emerging research challenges in modern wireless networks, and particularly how to make these networks more efficient, reliable, and robust.

Tell us a little about your summer internship experience in Seattle. What did you learn?

Based on my experience, I would recommend that all computer science graduate students pursue summer internships. Summer internships are an excellent opportunity to figure out what you want to do, and possibly where you want to live, after graduate school. I would also recommend not to put off interning, especially as a Ph.D. student. You have to keep in mind that later on in your Ph.D. program, you will be set in your research direction, which might have implications on what internship opportunities you are willing to seek and accept. The earlier you start to intern, the better, as you most likely will have more flexibility to experiment. You also have to keep in mind that universities are rather empty during the summer. I personally was not able to be as productive with my work in such an environment. Note that I specify my productivity at work, as my productivity with other activities peaked during those times.

I first took advantage of summer internships to confirm whether I wanted to pursue a career in academia or in industry. I learned that the market is also more than just that polar distinction. You can also pursue a research career in industry or work on a startup. All of these careers are options you should not write off without some thought. Internships allow you to further experience these different environments. This knowledge prepares you to establish in your Ph.D. the relevant skills, competencies, and connections needed to pursue such careers. Finally concerning connections, another extremely important benefit of summer internships is the connections you make and the opportunities you get to collaborate with capable and brilliant people in your field. There is much to be gained from true collaborative work, including gaining knowledge and experience, and establishing lasting connections.

The summary is to not hold back on pursuing good summer internship opportunities. Trust your judgment of whether the internship you are granted would advance your knowledge or skills and get you closer to scoring that career that you want so much. Ask yourself with an open mind about whether it would be the best option, all options considered. Advisors should also help in making that final decision, as they know where you are in your Ph.D. career.

What has graduate student life been like for you?

In a nutshell, graduate life has been a wonderful, multi-dimensional experience. Professionally, graduate school has taken me through the steps and taught me the skills necessary in order to become an expert in my field. Developing all these skills has taken commitment, dedication, and drive. Often I would get impatient when I felt that I was not learning fast enough, but it is healthy to realize that you acquire these skills with experience, which naturally takes time. Furthermore, I am driven to be at the forefront of wireless networking research, which requires me to keep on learning, and I will just have to keep getting better at it.

Lara presenting her Ph.D. proposal.There are many other factors that contribute to the graduate experience. As I mentioned, internships are one factor, which I have personally learned significantly from. Another is a healthy relationship with your advisors. There is much that you can learn from your advisors. Networking with other researchers in my field at conferences and workshops was also fundamental to putting myself out there and working on the skill of engaging others in research-related discussions. This also helped me establish a network of collaborators and colleagues, where interesting research discussions can be generated. Another factor of graduate life that is often taken for granted is the people you are surrounded by. I am lucky to be surrounded by brilliant and driven professors and students in my department, who are wonderful people as well, and a lot of whom I have created lasting friendships with.

Finally, being at Santa Barbara and UCSB has also contributed significantly to my graduate life, and I am lucky to have come here. Being at UCSB allowed me to maintain and cultivate a very balanced lifestyle. I also feel that is the culture at UCSB, one of balance. The university also has excellent extracurricular programs to take advantage of, such as the Arts and Lectures Program, the Adventure Program, and many others. There is a lot that you can do at UCSB, and the fact that the school is in a beautiful place like Santa Barbara is a key component. There are very few other places where I would have had the opportunity to do everything that I have been able to do here in Santa Barbara, and I knew this when I applied to graduate school, which is why I chose to attend UCSB.

What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?

The source of motivation in my Ph.D. has been the relevancy of my research problems to our day-to-day interactions and lives, as well as the desire to be at the forefront of wireless networking research. As the wireless medium has become the primary source of communication and Internet connectivity, and as devices and wireless technologies become more sophisticated and capable, there has been a surge in the capacity demands of applications that run over these wireless devices. To sustain the volume and quality of service guarantees of the data generated, the opportunity and need to exploit complex wireless systems and technologies has firmly emerged as a solution to enable the timely and reliable delivery of data, while handling the inherent challenges of a crowded wireless medium, such as congestion and interference. My research is driven by the need to build efficient solutions and protocols with a sound theoretical foundation to address the challenges that arise in complex wireless systems. My work particularly focuses on the opportunities and challenges of sophisticated technology and systems in emerging wireless networks.

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and explain why.

I would say that I am proud of being able to somehow balance both research and fitness in my life, two things I am passionate about. I think that an important emotion in life is to appreciate one's dedication to creating the lifestyle that makes them happy.

What do you do to relax? Any hobbies, collections, pastimes, favorite places to go, favorite things to do? Along these same lines, what makes you happy?

Lara bouldering on the highly-rated Swiss Cheese Boulder in Washington.There are a number of things that I do to relax. Though if I really just want to relax (i.e., chillax), sometimes quiet time alone laying in the sun with my Kindle, or watching TV in the evening, are the most re-energizing things. As for hobbies, I am actually at the point where I have tried and liked more activities than I can actually consistently keep up with. Every time I try a new activity and like it, I somehow always seem to convince myself that someday I would be able to practice that activity regularly enough to be at a reasonable level of proficiency. The hobbies that I am consistent with, though, are rock climbing, ultimate Frisbee, yoga, fitness training/workout, and Argentine tango. One of my other favorite things to do is traveling. I love to experience different cultures, their cuisines, lifestyles, history, architecture, nature, and pastimes. I love to travel with an open mind.

Generally, having an active, dynamic, and connected life makes me happy.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

What people are truly surprised by (and I had to ask to find out) is my organizing skills. I guess people expect me to be super organized, which I am, but sometimes it just looks like a mess (i.e., organized disorder). The best example is the desktop screen on my 17-inch laptop. My friends are always baffled that I need to find space to save new documents to my desktop, since my desktop is just full of folders and files. I always tell them that I know exactly where everything is. Of course, that prompted them to rearrange my desktop screen in a failed attempt to confuse me.

What do you hope to be doing five or 10 years out of graduate school?

Getting a Ph.D. has been a process of setting myself up for that career where I get to fully explore my research aspirations. In five to 10 years out of graduate school, I hope to be making significant research contributions in terms of advancing technologies and designing wireless systems that push the frontier of what is possible using the wireless medium. I would also like to be understanding the impact of my solutions on our day-to-day wireless-driven interactions and activities and how to make them more seamless, resource-efficient, and cost-effective. On the longer run, I would like to be collaborating with researchers from fields such as sociology, health, and medicine, to work on wireless technologies and devices that can be used to improve our quality of life. Ultimately, I would like to have settled into an academic and/or research-oriented career where I get to work on exactly these exciting topics in wireless networks.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

I would say talk to someone if you are facing hurdles in your work, even if you are the type that prefers to handle things on your own. Sometimes somebody else has the solution, or can help you unlock your own solution.

Last but not least, you need to look toward the future and strive toward the lifestyle and career that makes you happy. That puts any sacrifice or hurdle within a much bigger picture or perspective.


To learn more about Lara, visit her ePortfolio:

Lara, center, dancing argentine tango at the Seattle Tango Magic Festival.

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