Hometown: La Crosse, Wisconsin
After completing her Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Periwinkle Doerfler came to New York City to embark on a Ph.D. program in computer science. She chose to pursue this degree at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering because of the exceptional opportunities it would afford her.
What does it mean to you to be an engineer?
You don’t have to build bridges or software security systems to be an engineer; I build policy recommendations.
How is your field being redefined for today and tomorrow’s needs? What contributions do you hope to make to this redefined landscape?
We used to think of cybersecurity experts as protecting entities like governments and banks from adversaries; that’s because those entities were the ones using computer systems. Today, everyone uses personal computers and cell phones, and I’m interested in protecting them. Chances are that you, as an individual, aren’t going to be the target of organized hacking in the way a bank or government agency is. You’re much more likely to be the victim of tech-facilitated domestic violence, such as when someone misuses a child-tracking app to stalk a partner. Using social media can leave you open to cyberbullying, harassment and doxing. We’ve found, as well, that researchers and scholars working on controversial topics leave themselves open to online abuse from those who don’t like their ideological stances or who feel threatened by the research findings, such as criminals who traffic in counterfeit goods and don’t want to be exposed by scholars studying online marketplaces.
None of those things require sophisticated hacking; two-thirds of all cell-phone users give their partners access to their devices, and if you’re using social media or publishing research results, your information is right out there.
After graduation, I’ll be working at Facebook, so I hope I’ll be effecting positive change from the inside.
How did NYU Tandon help you redefine yourself?
This is probably not the most feel-good story, but I myself was once the subject of doxing and harassment as a result of a research paper I co-authored. That just fueled my determination to continue my studies. That said, I could not have asked for a more wonderful, supportive advisor than Damon McCoy, and I think the atmosphere at Tandon is unlike anywhere else. I have friends in other computer science doctoral programs who describe them as very cut-throat, but at Tandon, everyone wants you to succeed and will do everything they can to encourage you. The attitude is that a rising tide lifts all boats, so a success for one is a success for all.