Sankar receives NSF CAREER award to conduct privacy research

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Assistant professor Lalitha Sankar

Arizona State University engineering faculty member Lalitha Sankar has received the National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Award, or CAREER Award.

Sankar is an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The award provides $455,000 for Sankar’s research project, Privacy-Guaranteed Distributed Interactions in Critical Infrastructure Networks. The project will develop information-sharing protocols between distributed, and often competitive, entities in critical infrastructure networks such as the electric grid.

Such protocols can enable better monitoring of the grid while allowing control over what, and how much, information is revealed.

Information sharing is essential for situational awareness and for ensuring timely response to changing events. It can be the difference in whether your air conditioning stays on during a heat wave, for example.

Sankar calls this information-sharing problem competitive privacy.

The award, described by NSF as its most prestigious for junior faculty, supports those who are teacher-scholars conducting outstanding research and demonstrating excellent teaching. Faculty members given these awards are expected to become leaders in integrating education and research.

The NSF uses CAREER awards to foster innovative developments in science and technology, increase awareness of careers in science and engineering, give recognition to the scientific missions of the participating agencies, enhance connections between fundamental research and national goals, and highlight the importance of science and technology for the nation’s future.

“I am just delighted with the opportunity to work on these topics,” Sankar said.

Sankar also acknowledged the valuable feedback she received from her mentors and colleagues, as well as the support of “amazing” ASU and Fulton Engineering staff members.

The U.S. energy grid is a patchwork of competitive private and public entities connected from coast to coast. While those entities need to communicate to keep electricity flowing, they also are concerned about revealing proprietary information. At the same time, the grid has to become more flexible, incorporating energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

“Extreme weather patterns are leading to dynamic and ever-increasing demands on the grid,” Sankar said. “The grid needs to be more responsive and resilient to avoid catastrophic outages.

“My goal is to develop optimal communication protocols so that the network operators can share just enough data for reliable functioning in a distributed manner.”

Given the competitive nature of the entities involved, Sankar’s research also will develop incentive mechanisms for operators and other data-centric entities in the electric grid to share information. She said she believes that the project results have broader applicability to other cyber-physical systems, including electronic healthcare, transportation and water-distribution systems.

Graduate students will be assisting Sankar in further developing her research ideas. She is also incorporating her research into an advanced graduate class, Cyber-security and Privacy in the Smart Grid, which she recently introduced at ASU.

The CAREER award also requires education outreach efforts with focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for K-12 students. Sankar plans to work with middle-school students, particularly girls, to explore the idea of privacy and their use of social media applications such as Facebook.

Sankar has a doctoral degree in electrical engineering from Rutgers University. Her master’s degree is from the University of Maryland and her bachelor’s degree is from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Prior to joining ASU, she was a science and technology postdoctoral fellow and research scholar at Princeton University.

Media Contact:
Judy Nichols, judith.nichols@asu.edu
(480) 965-9248
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering