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ASU student awarded prestigious Google fellowship for cybersecurity research

October 17, 2023

Kyle Zeng first ASU student to be honored with a Google PhD Fellowship

An Arizona State University student has been singled out by Google for his innovative solutions to cybersecurity attacks.

On Oct. 13, the global tech giant announced the winners of the prestigious 2023 Google PhD Fellowship.

Kyle Zeng, a PhD student in ASU’s School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, is the first ASU student to receive the coveted award. The School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence is part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

“I was thrilled when I knew I got the award,” said Zeng from Japan, where he was attending a Google hacking event. “This award means a lot to me.”

The Google PhD Fellowship is awarded globally to exemplary students in computer science and related fields. 

The award acknowledges the students' contributions to their areas of specialty and provides funding for their education and research. The fellowship also pairs recipients with a research mentor at Google.

Zeng said the fellowship validates the importance of his work. 

“Even a big tech company like Google recognizes my research and is willing to sponsor me,” said Zeng, who is a research assistant at the Laboratory of Security Engineering for Future Computing. “Winning this award motivates me to dive further into meaningful research and bring better security to all users.”

He says the recognition also serves as a confidence booster.

“For me, most of my time is just research, research, research,” he said. “Sometimes I am so deeply focused on what I haven't achieved and I experience imposter syndrome. This fellowship reminds me of my achievements.” 

Zeng’s research addresses the real dangers of vulnerabilities in the world of cybersecurity. 

Undiscovered exploitable vulnerabilities in systems allow attackers to fully control a victim's mobile phone, laptop and all other electronic devices, Zeng said.

“Attackers can compromise a victim's system without them doing anything — not even clicking a link. It allows attackers to steal critical information, (like) bank accounts, from a victim, track their locations, record their conversations and more,” he said. 

Zeng’s successful solutions are rooted, in part, in his approach to cybersecurity problems that are traditionally researched from a defender’s position. Zeng focuses on offensive security research by assuming the role of the hacker.  

“This unique perspective allows me to pinpoint weaknesses and make it harder to attack those systems,” he said.

Zeng is also exploring the possibility of turning the offensive analysis into a systematic model to guide other researchers. Hopefully this model can motivate others to join the offensive analysis and eliminate cyber attacks in the future.

Zeng’s advisor, Tiffany Bao, said she is proud of his accomplishments. Bao is the associate director of research acceleration at the Center for Cybersecurity and Trusted Foundations. The center helps address the long-term cybersecurity challenges facing the nation by bringing together faculty, students, sponsors and industry partners to identify and address challenges.

“He is doing a lot of amazing and impactful research,” said Bao, who is also an assistant professor in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence.

Bao said that having Zeng win the top cybersecurity award speaks to the resources the Fulton Schools of Engineering provide. In 2022, the schools invested $145 million in research.

“Zeng’s recognition means ASU is not only creating research but is making a social impact on cybersecurity to industry,” she said.

According to Mitch Hobza, Zeng will be joining a cohort of outstanding PhD students conducting cutting-edge research across the world.

“He will represent ASU’s commitment to global engagement and the innovative research being conducted with his faculty mentors,” said Hobza, senior program manager for ASU’s Distinguished Graduate Fellowship program in the Office of National Scholarships Advisement. “ASU joins six other public U.S. institutions with Google PhD Fellows for the 2023 cycle and, for the first time, will be represented alongside top-ranking institutions across the globe.”

Top photo: Kyle Zeng during a cybersecurity competition event. Photo courtesy 360 Vulcan

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News

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Unearthing climate solutions with cattle and soil

October 17, 2023

ASU professor's documentary 'Roots So Deep' explores an innovative grazing method

Peter Byck makes the distinction clear: He is not a farmer and he’s not a scientist. 

Yet, the Arizona State University filmmaker and professor of practice is responsible for bridging the two groups and conducting what has become the most comprehensive cattle grazing and regenerative agriculture research project in the U.S. to date — and he’s secured support from some of the largest corporations in the world, including McDonalds, Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), Cargill, ExxonMobil, Wrangler and Timberland. 

Wrangling more than 20 scientists across seven universities and 10 farms in the southeast U.S., Byck initiated the work that has since produced nine peer-reviewed research publications in a quest to find a scalable climate solution.

The answer he’s found is right under our feet. 

An underutilized way to graze cattle called Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing, has been helping innovative farmers increase carbon sequestration and improve soil health for years, but very little research has been done to support what both scientists and farmers know anecdotally, and there’s no assurance that traditional grazing farmers would embrace this new solution.

Byck spent the last four years meeting with scientists and farmers, seeking answers and documenting the process along the way. He chronicles the journey in a newly developed four-part docuseries called “Roots So Deep (You Can See the Devil Down There).” 

The film will have its Arizona premiere at ASU’s Marston Theater at 6 p.m. Oct. 26. 

“This story is based on rigorous science and human emotion; we've got the whole spectrum of science and humanity together,” said Byck, who has dual academic appointments at ASU in the School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It took a filmmaker here at a place like ASU to put together a science team to answer these questions that no one else had taken the time to answer.”

Peter Byck, ASU professor of practice and director of "Roots So Deep. Photo courtesy Carbon Nation, 2023

How we treat our soils 

Cattle have long been thought of as fomenters of climate change. They produce methane when they digest food and forests are cleared to grow the feed they need.

However, Byck believes that by transforming how cows are grazed in a way that revitalizes our soils, they too can become allies in the fight against climate change.

Soil, when healthy, acts as a carbon sink, storing substantial amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in the form of organic matter. Healthy soil also promotes beneficial microbial activity that reduces the release of greenhouse gasses produced by agricultural practices; it also promotes plant growth, retains water more effectively, and promotes biodiversity and ecological balance. 

On land that has been farmed conventionally — using a lot of tillage, chemical fertilizers and pesticides — soils are not healthy. They’re degraded, as opposed to being a living and organic environment teeming with life. 

Instead of the common practice of letting cows graze for months in one big field, AMP grazing, inspired by historical grazing practices of wild buffalo, elk and deer, focuses on rotating cattle through smaller grazing areas to maximize manure distribution and promote healthier soil. 

In this method, farmers divide their grazing land into smaller paddocks and rotate their livestock through these paddocks more frequently, allowing for periods of intense grazing followed by rest periods for the land. Frequently rotating the cattle ensures that cattle graze the forage thoroughly while avoiding overgrazing and soil degradation.

“Simply by mimicking the way bison used to move across the Great Plains, farmers are regenerating their land in a phenomenally fast, productive, profitable and enjoyable way,” Byck said. “(The AMP farmers) were building wildlife habitats, they were changing the water cycling on their land, they were getting out of debt and their animals needed a hell of a lot less medication. It’s a win, win, win, win, win, all the way across the board.”

Early results from Byck’s studies show that AMP grazing pulled down up to four times more carbon from the atmosphere compared to conventional grazers, and their cows emitted up to 10% less methane. These farms also had healthier soils, with 33% more insect diversity, 25% more microbial activity, improved water retention capabilities and three times as many grassland birds. 

Man taking notes in grass field

Senior wildlife biologist Mike McGraw takes notes in the field. More than 20 scientists across seven universities and 10 farms in the southeast U.S. were involved in the studies. Photo courtesy Carbon Nation, 2023

Byck champions AMP grazing as a potential climate change game-changer. Embracing this approach could diminish the need for fertilizers, safeguard natural ecosystems and potentially prevent rainforest deforestation for cattle farming.

But for any solution to really work, people need to use it. 

That's where a big question comes in throughout the films: Even if the science proves that this new way of grazing is better for the land and can benefit the farmers financially, will the traditional farmers change their ways? Will they try this new approach and become heroes in the fight against climate change? 

“Many of my colleagues in the regenerative agriculture space had already given up. They thought farmers wouldn't care about the science,” Byck said. “I disagreed with them. This story is the strongest story I've seen for a solution to climate change. I think our research will prove that farmers, whether they're conventional farmers or adaptive farmers, are very interested in science.” 

Screening info

"Roots So Deep (You Can See the Devil Down There)"
Thursday, Oct. 26, Marston Exploration Theater

5 p.m. – Food provided and sponsored by Atlasta Catering
6 p.m. – Film screening 
8 p.m. – Q&A with Director Peter Byck, ASU professor of practice

Parking: Validated parking at the Rural Road Parking Structure at 1100 S. Rural Rd. Bring your parking ticket to the event.

Top image: Farmers Katie and Cooper Hurst in Woodville, Mississsippi. Photo courtesy Carbon Nation, 2023

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications