In touch with … Elena Sitnikova

The pandemic and associated telehealth push has placed special emphasis on Associate Professor Elena Sitnikova’s work as a cybersecurity and networking expert. We spoke with her about the diversity of her interaction with defence, health, teaching and research, and the benefits of easy access to Adelaide’s beach life.

What is your role and what does your work focus on?

I’m an Associate Professor in Cybersecurity and Networking in the College of Science and Engineering. My research and education activities are in a very exciting area of cybersecurity in society’s critical infrastructure, where compromise or cyber-attack can lead to huge impacts on our health, economy, wellbeing and security.

I’m also an award-winning academic recognised as an innovative educator in cybersecurity, online student engagement and research-led teaching.

What journey brought you to this point in your career?

I’ve always been interested in technical tasks. I was 10 when I disassembled a clock and put it back together correctly – all under the watchful eye of my father. I completed a Bachelor’s degree with Honours from Georgian Technical University in Tbilisi, and my PhD is in Communication Control systems.

I arrived in Australia 23 years ago and worked at Motorola Global Software Centre at Mawson Lakes as a senior software engineer for five years before pursuing my academic career, to start researching control systems. The evolution of Critical Infrastructure systems and modern technology opens more areas for research, so my work now aims to keep our national infrastructure safe in protecting every aspect of our society – economy, finances, health, defence, food, water security and making complex systems more resilient to new threats.

I’m expanding intrusion detection methods, data protection and privacy preservation by applying Machine Learning and AI techniques, and my recent research has been directed toward the defence industry. From my perspective, defence systems are highly vulnerable to cyber attackers because of their extremely high complexity, with sub-systems, systems of systems (SoS) and families of systems of systems (FSoS) having obvious high security needs.

What do you love most about your work?

As a long-time educator focused on research-led learning, I prepare cybersecurity workforces through my teaching and supervision of research students. When I see another cohort of future cybersecurity professionals complete my courses, I am confident they know much more than they did when they started, empowered by my teaching of the potential of secure technologies, and taking on my mantra of “cybersecurity is everybody’s business.” It is most rewarding the knowledge that I pass to students reflected in their growth as enterprising graduates and professionals in cybersecurity, nationally and internationally.

What would you like people to know about your role?

Cybersecurity is multidisciplinary and rides on the forefront of other disciplines. I have an unusual capacity to breach discipline/sector boundaries and engage people in different sectors. For example, the pandemic and associated telehealth push illustrates the increasing value of having sensitive information (such as immunisation status, treatment protocols) instantly available in digitalised personal health records. Healthcare cybersecurity breaches disrupt essential services and can compromise patient safety and data privacy, but health systems and their managers are usually ill-equipped to mitigate such threats.

To help avert such problems, my office door is always open. Please visit me at Tonsley – we can discuss how cybersecurity can apply to your discipline.

What is it like being a woman in STEM?

As a female engineer, and at times the only female cyber academic, I am especially proud to be a visible leader in gender and equity. I promote cybersecurity as a discipline and career path for women by being the best role model I can be.

When I entered the Georgian Technical University in Tbilisi, half the students in the electrical engineering degree program were female, so I did not feel unusual. I was shocked when I arrived in Australia to find women comprise just 7-10% of people working in the IT industry. With similar proportions in STEM courses at universities, I have always been focused on helping women enter my field.

I like to say: “Cybersecurity is everybody’s business.” Women of diverse skills and all professions can be involved in cybersecurity from different dimensions, because it is no longer simply a technical issue. Multidisciplinary in nature, cybersecurity can include women with skills in data analytics, business, systems engineering, law, governance, quality/safety assurance, and social and human sciences.

As Director Academia for theWomen in Cybersecurity (WiCyS) Australian affiliate, I am encouraging women to join me in the exciting field of cybersecurity by becoming WiCyS members. Students can join too as we have a new WiCyS Students’ Chapter.

What does a normal day look like for you?

My working day starts with some yoga stretches and a glass of warm water.

I work a mixture of in the office and from home – balancing work/home days helps me concentrate on face-to-face meetings at the office and also have productive times writing academic papers at home.

I try to finish my day with a Barre class at the gym or going for a walk. I like the Adelaide Hills. There is nothing better than going for a short stroll up a hill after a working day, getting to a point where you can see the ocean and feel a sense of belonging to this beautiful part of the world.

How do you like to relax or spend your spare time?

When I have some spare time, I head straight to the beach. Coming back to Adelaide after spending seven years in Canberra, I have realised how much I missed blue colours and the sea breeze – and the beach is only a 20-minute drive from my house in the Hills!

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