Dr Daniel Ramotsoela (31) – a senior lecturer in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Electrical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment (EBE) – has emerged as a finalist in this year’s “Science Oscars”, as the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) awards are known.
In the seven years he’s been a lecturer, he admits to being “one of the youngest people in the room (with colleagues) but I am slowly becoming part of the establishment as I inch towards professorship”.
He is one of three finalists in the TW Kambule–NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher category, and for cyber security enthusiast Dr Ramotsoela, his selection is positive proof that his “efforts and contributions have been acknowledged and valued by the broader community”.
As a young senior lecturer in the department, he said he is always eager to learn from his colleagues and collaborate with them. “We may not all be working in the same research area or teaching the same courses, but we all have a lot to offer each other. I provide a completely different perspective because of my background and research interests, which is valued in this dynamic academic environment.”
He has spent time at the University of Michigan in the United States working with Professor Todd Austin, who he describes as a world-renowned computer hardware security expert. “We were mainly working on privacy enhancing technologies, primarily focusing on verifiable computation in sequestered encryption applications.”
Kamva Somdyala (KS): What’s your area of speciality and what can you share about it?
Daniel Ramotsoela (DR): My field of research is cyber security, primarily focusing on operational technology (OT) and internet of things (IoT) applications. These systems are at the heart of critical infrastructure (such as power plants, manufacturing, and water systems) and will be integral for the envisioned smart cities of the future.
Unauthorised access or manipulation of these systems can result in catastrophic accidents, environmental hazards, or even loss of life because of the critical nature of the application environment.
Imagine how dangerous the situation would be if an attacker was able to seize control of an Eskom power station. It is thus important for us to secure these systems as the world grapples with rapid technological advancements within this new digital era.
“I conduct my own independent research, which is where my students’ research projects stem from.”
It is an exciting field that changes almost daily because the development of new software and hardware inherently introduces new vulnerabilities and risks.
I have thus developed undergraduate and postgraduate cyber security courses to make UCT engineering students more competitive and attractive in the global labour market.
KS: How would you motivate young people to get them interested in this field of study?
DR: Cyber security is just one of many fields within the broader umbrella of electrical and computer engineering, but it does not come as a standalone degree. I would encourage young people to go to university and study engineering so they can get exposure to the wide range of technologies and systems involved.
It’s a challenging journey but it is also very enjoyable and exciting.
KS: Given the seriousness with which you speak about the grave threat of cyber attacks, what would you say is the benefit of young people getting into the field, as a young person yourself?
DR: There is a shortage of cyber security specialists worldwide and in South Africa the situation is even more dire than in more developed countries. This means that our infrastructure is vulnerable to attacks and can be exploited by people with malicious intentions because of the skills shortage. Not only does it offer amazing career prospects, but it is also a very fulfilling field to be in because the work one does is very impactful.
KS: Can you share some of the work you do on a daily basis?
DR: What I love about academia is how dynamic the work environment is. I teach several undergraduate and postgraduate courses within my department.
I also supervise research projects for final-year, master’s and PhD students, which is where my research responsibilities interact with my teaching responsibilities under an apprenticeship model. I conduct my own independent research, which is where my students’ research projects stem from.
The fun part is implementing these projects, which requires me to tinker with new technologies years before they enter the mainstream [market].
KS: Do you have an engineering/science philosophy? If so, what is it?
DR: An engineer is a problem-solver, so it is very import to be problem-focused rather than technology-focused. What I mean by this is that I am guided by a particular problem I am trying to solve rather than the technologies I am using to solve said problem.
Sometimes that is a slow process that involves many intermediate goals and sub-projects.
My students are always keen to start writing code or building hardware and I always stop them and ask, “What are you trying to achieve?”
KS: You have been named as an NSTF award finalist: Is this something you have been working towards?
DR: Not really. As mentioned, my philosophy is geared more towards problem-solving. Over the past few years, my focus has been on building cyber security capacity and raising awareness within the engineering sector in South Africa.
My overarching research project focused on intrusion detection in industrial control systems. The project was about how we make our systems more resilient to the impact of successful cyber security attacks.
I have disseminated my work through research publications and public lectures to highlight the importance of this critical field and lay the groundwork for the widespread industry adoption of these exciting new technologies.
KS: What would a win mean to you?
DR: Being a finalist for this award is a tremendous honour. It is a recognition of the hard work, dedication and passion I have put into my work.
It also validates my commitment to excellence and the impact I strive to make. Winning the award would undoubtedly be an incredible achievement and inspire me to continue pushing boundaries and making a positive impact in my field.
“Some journeys have no shortcuts.”
KS: Besides being a senior lecturer, how else have you interacted with young people in your field?
DR: I am a member of the cyber-security chapter of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers. It is a small but growing chapter that focuses on building cyber security capabilities within the operation technology sector in the country. One of the main initiatives is trying to persuade young engineering graduates to pursue careers within this field.
KS: What have been some of your highlights in the field of engineering?
DR: Some journeys have no shortcuts; you just have to put your head down and put in the required time and effort to achieve your goals. What is important to remember is that the journey is as important as the destination because what you learn along the way could be beneficial in contexts you have not even imagined yet.
I am grateful to professors Gerhard Hancke Sr, Gerhard Hancke Jr and Adnan Abu-Mahfouz. I have been fortunate enough to have three amazing mentors who are world-renowned experts in their respective fields to guide me along the way.
It is for this reason that I am very passionate about my responsibility to develop the next generation of engineers and researchers.
With South Africa commemorating lives lost in June 16, 1976 this month, Ramotsoela urged today’s youth to show interest in the ins and outs of cyber security because of a shortage of skills in the country.
This year’s NSTF winners will be announced at an awards ceremony taking place on 13 July.
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