Faces of the Foundation: Kathleen Fisher

March 5, 2018
Bennett McIntosh
Livermore, Calif

Even the most careful human programmers would be lying if they said their code never had bugs. And when that code runs military drones, our automobiles, or our election systems, any bug that provides an opening for hackers could cause death and political mayhem.

Hertz Fellow Kathleen Fisher knows this well. An expert in the field of “formal methods” — ways of using mathematical proofs to explicitly ensure your programs don’t have certain bugs and vulnerabilities. “It’s a machine-checked way to make sure you’re not making certain mistakes,” she says.

For three years, as a program manager at DARPA, she led a program called HACMS (pronounced like “Hack ’ems!”) which demonstrated that attackers could find flaws in drones’ security and take control of them remotely — and then redesigned the software from the ground up using formal methods to check for security flaws and prevent this from happening again. “It’s like having a machine over your shoulder, checking your work,” she said.

Kathleen’s interest in specialized programming languages—like those that allow for formal analysis, began as a student at Stanford where, as a Hertz Fellow, she developed a way to ensure the correctness of object-oriented programming languages—like C++ and Java, creating a structure for an object-oriented language which, mathematically, could not have certain bugs and their associated security flaws.

She credits the Hertz Fellowship for giving her the confidence to pursue such an ambitious project, and giving her a boost in meeting other scholars in the field. “Because I had funding for research, my advisor paid for me to go to more conferences. He didn’t go with me, so I met tons of people early on. That really jumpstarted my introduction to the field,” she recalls.

Decades later, as the Chair of Tufts University’s computer science department, she’s constantly looking for ways to jumpstart the next generation’s careers, and making sure all young talent in the field has the opportunity to succeed. In a field that has become increasingly dominated by men since the 1980’s, Fisher does her level best to make sure women have the tools and confidence to succeed. Whether mentoring individual women to ensure they can get the most out of conferences or structuring classes at Tufts to attract more students without previous coding experience. “We want all students to feel welcome,” she said.