Levin Opens Doors to Undergraduate Research

Published March 14, 2024

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Hands-on research for undergraduates enriches the learning experience and often provides valuable insight into future career or graduate-level interests. But for students that have never set foot in a lab or undertaken a large scientific project, it can be an extremely daunting prospect.

Dave Levin, an associate professor of computer science, has made it his academic mission to showcase the value of undergraduate research to students that may never have considered it.

Much of this philosophy stems from his own experience, Levin says.

“I do have this sort of unique perspective, having been an undergrad, grad student, research scientist, and then a faculty member at Maryland,” he says. “So, I've seen the full pipeline, and the exposure—or lack thereof—to varying levels of research opportunities that students can experience.”

Levin graduated from the University of Maryland in 2002 with dual bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and computer science. He then worked as a software engineer at Space/Ground System Solutions in Southern Maryland, but eventually discovered that he was more interested in pursuing a career in research. Levin returned to UMD to pursue a doctoral degree in computer science, earning his Ph.D. in 2010.

Graduate school ended up being just what he needed, says Levin, who has a joint appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and is a core faculty member in the Maryland Cybersecurity Center (MC2).

“I love the idea of doing something nobody’s done before—being able to feel like I’m expanding the frontiers of knowledge,” he says. “I'm teaching people something with my research. Like, they’re thinking one way, and then my results show that you have to stop thinking that way.”

No matter the subject area, or level of academic coursework, research is imperative for expanding one’s knowledge base and guiding their career path, Levin says.

He recalls a conversation he had more than a decade ago, after he had completed his Ph.D. and was working at UMD as an assistant research scientist.

Levin was speaking to a talented undergraduate computer science major who was approaching graduation. The student said they were not planning to pursue graduate-level research, assuming it was all just theoretical and not necessarily something that could be put into practice.

“It’s funny because here was a student telling me he definitely did not want to pursue research, and then proceeded to tell me about this exciting project he was working on with another faculty member which in fact was research,” Levin says, admitting he does not know where the student ended up after graduation. “It taught me that many undergraduates do not know what computer science research is—even if they’re actively doing it. I felt that that was a huge missing piece of our curriculum. That is, that there are these many rewarding, fascinating, and impactful aspects of research, but students did not even know to try to pursue it.”

Launching Breakerspace Lab

Looking to expand research opportunities for computer science undergraduates, Levin opened Breakerspace in Fall 2018. Located in the Computer Science Instructional Center, the lab has at least a dozen students working on research at any given time, with most focusing on network and systems security.

Breakerspace has served as an incubator for projects that have garnered international attention and awards. Geneva, a genetic algorithm that discovers ways to evade nation-state internet censorship, was created by Kevin Bock, a UMD adjunct faculty member who received his Ph.D. in computer science in 2022 with Levin as his adviser.

The Geneva research had strong participation from undergraduate students, Levin says. Another project that received media attention, uncovering privacy risks in cell phones won at police auctions, also had substantial input from undergraduates working in Breakerspace, he adds.

Michelle Mazurek, an associate professor of computer science and director of MC2, says that Breakerspace provides UMD undergraduates a unique and valuable opportunity.

“They’re not just participating in activities at the lab, they’re leading projects that result in high-quality publications, a role that is often reserved for graduate students,” Mazurek says. “Our cybersecurity center—and UMD’s undergrads—are lucky to have Dave.”

Advocating for Underrepresented Groups

Beyond giving undergraduates exposure to research opportunities, Levin is also a strong advocate for increasing a broader representation of people interested in computer science. As chair of his department’s Computer Science Honors program, Levin is continuously making a conscious effort to reach out to women and other underrepresented groups.

The national average for women undergraduates majoring in computer science is 19%, and at UMD it’s 24%, thanks in part to a range of diversity initiatives and programs like the ones Levin is active in.

“I’m just trying to open up the world of computing research to a broader community,” he says. “We could all stand to benefit from their ideas and talents, but underrepresentation is very difficult to overcome for many reasons.”

Levin believes there is still a lot of imposter syndrome and embedded bias in so many aspects of the tech-world system, which is one reason he continues to play an active role in activities like the Tech + Research workshop, where undergraduates from around the country are invited to take a deep dive into computer science research projects.

The annual workshop, hosted by the Department of Computer Science and the Maryland Center for Women in Computing, is run in tandem with Technica, the world’s largest hackathon for underrepresented genders.

Levin has been involved with the workshop since its launch in 2018, leading projects and offering his expertise and advice to participants.

His work and advocacy has not gone unnoticed. In 2020, Levin received the Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which recognizes individuals who provide outstanding mentorship and high-quality research opportunities for undergraduate students, and are active in the recruitment of women and minority students in computing-related fields.

Passing on a Passion for Mentorship

Levin is quick to admit that his own journey with academic research is not unique, and that his passion for promoting scientific discovery to others will require a team effort.

Part of that effort may come from Sadia Nourin, who graduated from UMD in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in finance and computer science, having joined Breakerspace as an undergraduate after hearing a talk about the Geneva censorship project.

“The policy issue of internet censorship resonated with me, and I was fascinated by the challenge of discovering computational tools that would expand the frontier of knowledge and make the internet safe and secure for users around the world,” says Nourin, who is currently pursuing a master’s in computer science with Levin as her adviser.

Last year, she received an Internet Society Pulse Research Fellowship for her groundbreaking work to measure censorship in smaller countries with repressive regimes and limited internet access.

Nourin is now mentoring undergraduate students herself. She doesn’t think she would love research as much as she does if it was not for mentors, including Levin, who helped her along the way.

“I want to pay their kindness forward,” says Nourin, who is planning to pursue a Ph.D. “During my mentoring sessions with undergraduates, I can actually see some of them have the same epiphanies and experiences that I had when I had just discovered research. It's very fulfilling to know that I played some role, however small, in fostering their interest in research.”

—Story by Melissa Brachfeld, UMIACS communications group