Attila Yavuz’s path in life was shaped by his academic family and the culture of his home town, Çanakkale, Turkey, which had a rich history of seven civilizations including Trojan, Greek and Roman. In fact, the Troy was very close to where he grew up, which is fitting since the Trojan horse is an iconic symbol in computer security, his area of research.
Yavuz’s academic lineage goes back to his grandparents who were mathematicians in the area of library organization science. His father, a mathematical physicist, studied the birth of the universe which took a lot of computing power, so they were one of the first families in Turkey to have computers at home. Yavuz recalls in his early years there were sacks of punch cards around their apartment.
“I’ve seen every version of computer evolve in my lifetime,” he said.
Family dinner conversations were often a debate of whether mathematics or biology (which his mother studied) was the most fundamental science. But Yavuz also learned about the arts and philosophy from his older sister. In their basement was a library of 8,000 books in Turkish, English, German and French on a broad range of topics that became part of his education.
His father co-founded Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, and after seeing it become successful decided it was time to move to Istanbul where Yavuz earned his bachelor’s degree at Yildiz Technical University, followed by his master’s degree in computer science at Bogazici University, also in Istanbul.
Although he initially wanted to be a medical doctor like his sister, he decided that in cryptography he could still help people and also pursue his love of math.
“I believe researchers in cryptography and computer security are the doctors of computer science — we prevent disease and problems in computer systems,” he said.
Yavuz felt his skills would be of most use in applied cryptography. One focus of his research is on retrieving specific information from encrypted files on the cloud without downloading and decrypting terabytes of data. Another area of his research focuses on the security of systems such as the electric grid and autonomous driving cars.
“We don't want attackers to destroy our electric grid or send false messages to autonomous driving cars, so you want to use cryptography but it slows everything down which may cause electronic devices to be harmed or accidents on the road,” he said. “Then my job is to create very fast cryptography algorithms that can meet real-time needs of these critical systems.”
Yavuz completed his Ph.D. at North Carolina State University before working at Bosch Research and Development Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But he was encouraged by his family to carry on their academic lineage which is how he came to be at Oregon State.
“My mother said all the time, ‘You must take the flag run with it by pushing the state of art and science and then give the flag your students.’ This is what we have been doing for many generations of the family,” he said.
Yavuz is excited about working with undergraduates because he did not have that opportunity working in industry.
“I believe if you can seed the curiosity and love of computer science at and early stage then that tree will grow much faster and have deeper roots, and I think undergraduates are in a really good position to do that,” he said.
Although he considers his job also his hobby because he enjoys it so much, when he is not doing mathematics, Yavuz likes studying philosophy and playing real-time strategy computer games like Starcraft II.