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Fall Convocation: Senate Medallist in Computer Science - Hala Assal’s Journey to PhD

Hala Assal.jpg

Graduation may have been the destination, but when asked to reflect on her doctoral studies at Carleton, Hala Assal says she’s most proud of the journey.

“Acquiring a PhD is not a trivial task, especially when you have a family and a child to take care of,” says Assal, who will graduate this fall with a PhD in Computer Science and receive a Senate Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement. “On the academic side, I’m proud that my research addressed an area that was understudied and provided insights that can help software development companies improve their security processes.”

At Carleton, Assal was a member of Sonia Chiasson’s CHORUS Lab in the School of Computer Science (SCS). It was there that she used state-of-the-art equipment to conduct research on usable security and privacy, an interdisciplinary field that involves computer security, human-computer interaction (HCI) and cognitive science. Specifically, her research focused on human aspects of software security within the overall development process.

Assal says that her strategy for academic success evolved over time but that keeping in close contact with her supervisor helped immensely. “Through weekly meetings with Sonia, I had the opportunity to discuss challenges that I faced, as well as new research findings,” she says.

She also enjoyed collaborating with members in the lab and discussing her research with some of the best minds in the field. “I really was fortunate to have close access to experts in usable security, HCI and security, namely Sonia Chiasson, Robert Biddle and Paul Van Oorschot.” Carleton’s beautiful campus was a bonus. “I loved sitting by the river, just to relax or gather my thoughts while thinking about my research,” she says.

Assal’s academic experience was complemented by learning opportunities that extended beyond her degree requirements. She was an active participant in several conferences, workshops and meetups related to her research, and volunteered with SHAD, an enrichment program for high school students, and with SERENE-RISC, where she is an HQP (Highly Qualified Personnel).   

Her advice to doctoral students, in a nutshell? “Keep going, one milestone at a time,” she says. “Perseverance pays off in the end.” She also encourages them to augment their work in the lab with extra-curricular activities, as she did. “This helps enrich students' experiences, gets them in touch with experts in the field—whether academics or industry people—and helps elevate their research.”

Assal continues to collaborate with the CHORUS Lab and has partnered with the System Security Group at ETH Zürich, Switzerland on human-centric research projects aimed at enhancing users’ privacy and security.

And now she has embarked on a new journey. As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, her current work focuses on privacy considerations when developing software applications for persons with cognitive impairments.