Deborah Frincke: science of protecting communities

From an early age, Deborah Frincke has been a keen observer. Her own backyard, teeming with life, was endlessly fascinating and fragile, sparking a desire to learn how the world works, and later, how to protect it.

As an avid reader, her fondness for JRR Tolkien, the adventure stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and the Smithsonian’s books – all focused on protecting communities – had cultivated a recurring theme that appeared regularly throughout. throughout his career.

“I was reading books that balanced how the world works with what needs to be done to make the world a better and safer place,” Frincke said. “That was usually the subject of these stories.”

Frincke joined the Oak Ridge National Laboratory as Associate Laboratory Director for the Directorate of National Security Science, or NSSD, in 2020, tasked with leading multiple research and development efforts to guide solutions based on science to the complex threats that put public safety, national defense and energy infrastructure. and the threatened economy.

“I believe that making the world a safer and more secure place is based on the foundations of science,” she said. “A better understanding of the digital world and, more broadly, of how national security relates to technology, will help us inform and equip decision makers with the best defenses against threats in national and global systems.”

“Given Deb’s exemplary work and reputation, we are pleased to have her expertise and leadership at the helm of ORNL’s missions in the field of national security science,” said the director of ORNL, Thomas Zacharia. “Her commitment is invaluable as she guides interdisciplinary teams in the development of science-based solutions towards a safer and more secure world.”

Prior to ORNL, Frincke held various positions at the National Security Agency between 2011 and 2020, most recently as the agency’s research director. At the NSA, she headed what is perhaps the largest internal research organization in the U.S. intelligence community. She was also a founding member of the NSA board, served as the agency’s science advisor, and was the NSA’s first innovation champion.

Frincke has become one of the nation’s foremost computer scientists and cybersecurity experts. And, this path started at home.

When she was a pre-teen, her father bought the family a computer. She quickly hooked up, learned to code, and started making games for her younger siblings. The purpose of these map-based games was to ensure the safety of the villages.

Without realizing it, she was developing computer modeling and simulation skills and programming her influences into code, foreshadowing a career in protecting communities on a global scale.

His interest in science, as a child, had taken on a more naturalistic perspective, leading Frincke to study biology as well as psychology and even mythology. She entered the University of California, Davis, majoring in pre-veterinary studies. But, computer classes have always been in the mix. After switching to another course, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics, a master’s degree in computer science and a doctorate in computer science, all from UC Davis.

The year 1988 was a pivotal year for Frincke’s career. The Morris worm had invaded the Internet (which was in its infancy), invading computer systems and exploiting several vulnerabilities, including weak passwords.

“It destroyed about 10% of the Internet, which at the time was only a matter of a few hundred to a thousand systems,” Frincke said of the event that occurred while she was at. higher school. “I felt outraged that someone could take down something so important to so many people.”

It was a call to action. “I thought, ‘This shouldn’t happen. Do something about it. I had no idea it was going to take me the rest of my career and my professional life, ”she said.

Cyber ​​security became his primary focus, shifting his graduate work from modeling and simulation to exploring ways to protect computer systems from cyber threats. As a post-doctoral fellow, Frincke took a teaching position at the University of Idaho and founded its computer security program, which quickly became the top-ranked program in the country at the time.

While this was a significant achievement, Frincke was just getting started. She had found what she called her vocation. A self-described shy child, she found herself behind catwalks regularly presenting on cybersecurity, speaking at events and conferences and in classrooms.

“I stepped up,” she says, “and I did it because I needed it.”

She left a permanent position in Idaho to become the chief cybersecurity research scientist in the National Security Division of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, followed by a stint as deputy director of research for the department. American Defense Force before joining the NSA.

Under his leadership, the NSA Research Branch engineered breakthroughs in various fields including mathematics, computing, cybersecurity, quantum and high performance computing, engineering, physical sciences, neuroscience, cognitive psychology and linguistics. His leadership has been crucial for significant technology transfers within the NSA and between the federal government and international partnerships.

She served on the Intelligence Community’s Steering Committee for Artificial Intelligence and was co-chair of the White House Committee on Quantum’s Economic and National Security Implications.

Frincke also brings business experience to his role, having launched a successful cybersecurity start-up, TriGeo Network Systems. She has published over 100 articles and technical reports, and her awards include the NSA Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the NSA Research Leadership Excellence Award in Intelligence, and the US Presidential Award.

Frincke’s decades of expertise and passion for protecting the nation and its assets will be manifested as she continues to refine her vision of NSSD at ORNL.

She oversees the work of multidisciplinary research teams that apply signature capabilities in nuclear and uranium science, high performance computing, geographic information science, cyber science and data science, applied materials and advanced manufacturing to counter national security challenges.

“The cutting-edge research carried out at NSSD draws on deep expertise not only within our leadership, but also across ORNL, which can be applied to our various fields of science, from transportation and manufacturing to physics and IT and beyond, ”said Frincke. “At ORNL, we can have missions that help build and support mitigation strategies to prevent crises before they happen.”

Despite a busy schedule developing strategies to protect the cyber world, she still takes time for close observation outside.

“Tennessee is beautiful – it’s so beautiful here, I got my first real camera, with interchangeable lenses, and I became totally addicted to bird watching.”


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Gail Mena

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