Martin Husák: How Netflix Inspired Cybersecurity Research

24 Apr 2024

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After a year spent abroad at The University of Texas at San Antonio, our colleague Martin Husák from the cybersecurity team CSIRT-MU returned to us. He was able to complete his postdoc internship in a research group in the USA thanks to a grant to support the mobility of promising researchers. What exactly does he focus on in his research? And why does he think Brno is the best city in the world?

What was the main reason behind your decision to go to the United States for your internship?

First of all, the career perspective. As a researcher, I have to find my own funding for my research, often through grants. And increasingly, it is becoming a common requirement that the principal investigator have international experience, typically a year abroad. And this is crucial not only for successfully obtaining grants, but also for further professional advancement, such as habilitation. In short, in today's scientific sphere, having and international experience is a necessity rather than a choice.

How has working in a research group abroad contributed to your professional development? You say that it is indeed a duty, but I hope you have benefited in other ways as well?

It has helped me a lot. Researching abroad has given me an insight into the working environment and practices in a different culture. And although it wasn't my first experience abroad - I already did a three-month internship at Florida Atlantic University during my Ph.D. studies - the placement gave me new insights and perhaps a significant improvement in terms of academic writing, but also in terms of personal development.

„It is becoming a common requirement that the principal investigator have international experience, typically a year abroad.“

You applied for an MSCA (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions) grant, why that one? What are its advantages and attractions?

I chose the MSCA grant because of its prestige and the opportunity for scientists from all over the world to participate. Usually the best of the best apply and it is hard to succeed. Its main aim is then to support the mobility of scientists in Europe and globally. At Masaryk University, this grant was massively promoted and support was offered for proposal writing. I attended workshops on proposal writing, which helped me a lot. Thanks to this help, I wrote a quality proposal that ended up just below the acceptance line on the first attempt.

However, another benefit of this grant is that projects that are of sufficient quality but have not been accepted for funding through MCSA can be funded through other funding sources.

So you were successful, but the funding was different?

Exactly. It was not directly from that grant, but my internship was funded by the Ministry of Education through the OP JAK program.

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Let's go back to your internship in America. What are the main differences between working in research here and in the US?

The differences are significant. In the US, there is a strong pressure to produce results and publish them quickly, which leads to more frequent monitoring of current trends and their immediate elaboration into articles and presentations. American researchers often focus on following the latest topics and quickly gaining prestige, but are less concerned with the practical implementation of their results.

In Europe, on the other hand - and here at the ICS, for example, we pay a lot of attention to this - there is more emphasis on the practical application of research results, from the idea to their implementation in practice. I find this approach valuable and I am glad for it.

Were there any particular challenges that you had to overcome when you worked there? What surprised you?

Professionally there weren't many surprises, I knew what I was getting into. I had a clear idea of what I was going to do and I stuck to my project proposal.

On a practical level, however, I encountered a challenge - my workplace, The University of Texas at San Antonio, did not handle the covid situation in a completely optimal way, which led to most people not physically coming to work. The campus was nearly empty and lacked community life and normal interactions between colleagues. Meetings via Zoom and Teams became the norm, which affected our research group.

You told me that the city of San Antonio, where you lived, was very military and you often saw the army on your campus. Did you have any experience working with the military?

Collaboration with the military was common among the scientists I worked with, but I didn't personally get involved because I was focused on my own project. What was interesting, however, was that students had the opportunity to take military courses for credit, which included exercises in military skills, for example.

About life in USA:
„I have seen many cities, but none of them compares to Brno.“

Let's get back to your research. What is your research topic?

My research focuses on the application of so-called recommender systems in cybersecurity. I like to liken it to the example of watching a movie on Netflix - when it ends, you're offered the next one right away based on your history of what movies you've watched and what you enjoy. And I thought of applying this to cybersecurity.

Using a recommender system, I try to predict potential attacks based on attack history and attacker behavior. That way we can then identify potential attack targets and strengthen their defenses.

What are your plans now that you're back?

I now have a year to complete my research work. The project is two years long and the return phase is now underway, which includes a final summary of the results and the preparation of prototypes of the system. My goal is to publish a prototype by the end of the year and pull together all the work to date.

In addition, we have recently started collaborating on a major new European project, Resilmesh, supported by the Horizon Europe programme, so I have my fun covered for the next three years.

That's great news. When you were thinking about applying, how did the institute accommodate you in your decision to do a one-year fellowship?

I was absolutely supported in my decision. I didn't encounter any obstacles and the project support was great - from the application to the administration to dealing with travel formalities.

How would you evaluate your life in America? Do you have any interesting insights?

I would recommend a longer stay abroad to anyone - you realise the value of home. I already knew that we had a good time in the Czech Republic, but it wasn't until my internship that I realized exactly what it was. I came back to Brno thinking that it is the best city in the world and I want to liveand work here for the rest of my life. I have seen many cities, but none of them compares to Brno. It offers a wealth of cultural activities, amazing public transport, the shops have good quality food, and the seasonal temperatures are very pleasant. It's the little things that you only appreciate when you don't have them.

RNDr. Martin Husák, Ph.D.

Researcher from the Cybersecurity and Data Management Division, Ph.D. graduate of the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University. His research focuses on the application of recommender systems in cybersecurity.

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