Seven Questions with Laura Brandimarte
"I get to expose my students to topics that the entire privacy community has been investigating, including the many data breaches and privacy issues at the center of media attention today."
What brought you to the Eller College?
Certainly the MIS department. It is one of the best MIS departments in the U.S. and the atmosphere is conducive to great research and great work overall. After my first interview with Dean Goes (then department head) in New Zealand back in December 2014, I was so impressed I thought to myself if I ever got the chance to come work here it would be like winning the lottery. And I remember as if it were yesterday a call with my PhD adviser, discussing job talks and opportunities. He asked me whether I was enjoying the job market, and despite a few campus invitations, I said: "but Arizona hasn't called..." Quite unbelievably, I got the email to come visit the department as soon as I hung up. I was so excited I had to call my adviser back! It is now an incredible privilege and a constant inspiration to work alongside phenomenal academics such as department head Sue Brown, Joe Valacich or Jay Nunamaker, just to name a few. We juniors learn so much from them.
How long have you been at Eller?
I arrived in August 2015, so almost three years. I joined after obtaining my PhD in public policy and management and completing a post-doc at Carnegie Mellon University.
What is your current research, and what most excites you about that area of focus?
I am a privacy and security researcher. The aspect that excites me the most about this field is human decision making, and my research focuses mostly on why people decide to protect or share certain personal information. Most recently, I have been working on a project in collaboration with some colleagues in the field of machine learning to investigate the effects of awareness of government surveillance on the way people behave online, and more specifically the way they express themselves on social media. Are people concerned about government surveillance to the point where they avoid using certain "sensitive" words that might be monitored by governmental authorities for purposes associated with national security? We are still analyzing the data, but quite interestingly, preliminary results suggest some form of self-censoring by Twitter users.
What are you currently teaching, and what do you most enjoy about teaching?
I have been teaching a very fun class (at least for me!) since I joined the department, it's called Social and Ethical Issues of the Internet (MIS 411/511). It is mostly about privacy and security, but we cover other topics as well, including hacktivism, the spread of fake news, and net neutrality. The thing I enjoy the most is student participation: they are always very interested in discovering new ways in which technology affects our lives, and their final projects are always fascinating.
This semester I also started teaching Business Foundations for IT (MIS 513), and the part I enjoy the most is certainly students' case competitions. This semester I assigned nine cases overall, and each time two teams of students competed to find a good solution to each case. They showed high critical thinking capabilities and that little inch of competitiveness that I found quite healthy in preparing them for the job market.
How do you bring your research into your teaching?
Most of my 411/511 class is based on privacy and security concepts, so I get to expose my students to many topics that the entire privacy community has been investigating recently or has investigated in the past. With so many data breaches and privacy issues being at the center of media attention, it is also quite easy to find business cases for my 513 class that analyze the struggle of tech companies to protect customers' data while, at the same time, trying to explore modern data analytics techniques to stay competitive on the market. This past year alone, we have witnessed some remarkable events, including the Equifax breach and the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. I must say students are quite intrigued and motivated when it comes to analyzing cases that have a focus on privacy and security.
Beyond research and teaching, what are your passions?
I have too many, I'm afraid! I am a very passionate supporter of AS Roma, my hometown's soccer team, who surprised and delighted me this year by getting to the Champions League semifinals; a historic fan of Valentino Rossi since the very beginning of his career well over 20 years ago, in my opinion the greatest motorcycle rider of all time; a motorcycle enthusiast in general, which is a great passion to have if you live in Arizona (I ride my Ducati to work all year long!); terribly in love with Rome and Italy, alas not so great a passion to have if you live in Arizona because it's so far; a great supporter of Roger Federer and LeBron James, two other greatest of all time in their respective sports if you ask me; always been a Michael Jackson fan, and it's great to see that he still inspires so many artists, both in music and dance; and last but not least, somewhat addicted to Hawaii.
What does the Eller Experience mean to you?
I would summarize it in one word: excellence. Eller gives students, staff and faculty an opportunity to be the best they can, to challenge themselves, to aim for the top. In only three years, I have seen so many students grow to the best of their potential and do wonders in their careers, both in academia and in the industry. As a junior faculty member, I am honored to be part of such a brilliant team.