Choosing Mathematics over Ballet. Hear Maria Dubovitskaya’s Story

By Chris Sciacca.

Maria Dubovitskaya, Predoctoral Security Researcher, and Member of IBM Academy of Technology
Maria Dubovitskaya, Predoctoral Security Researcher, and Member of IBM Academy of Technology

Ballet or mathematics? Most ordinary eight year olds girls would probably choose ballet, but Maria Dubovitskaya was anything but an ordinary eight year old.

One day, after ballet lessons in the Moscow suburb of Domodedovo, Maria’s parents were running a little late. She heard other children, mostly boys her age, clacking away on IBM 286 PC keyboards in the classroom next door. Peeking through a crack in the door Maria was overcome with curiosity.

“I remember they were drawing different figures on the screens and magically changing their shapes and colors simply by typing on the keyboard. I just had to try this out for myself.”

When her parents finally arrived, she immediately asked them to sign her up for a computer class.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but thinking back now, my parents were very supportive. In fact, a few days later my dad bought me a programming book for kids called The Encyclopedia of Professor Fortran, and also brought home a very simple computer. I was hooked,” said Maria.

Maria Dubovitskaya.
Maria Dubovitskaya.

Maria wrote her first program in just a few weeks, a multiple choice quiz, using the computer language BASIC. As she grew up, her interest in computer science surpassed that for ballet. And once she reached the Russian National Nuclear Research University her coach asked her to make what she called “one of the most difficult choices of my life.”

“I had my passion equally in both. But I knew the career of a dancer is quite short and the dedication required to become really world class doesn’t allow for distractions, like computer classes. This, combined with the prospects of an exciting career in mathematics and computer science, shifted my focus.”

Thankfully for IBM and the field of computer science, Maria chose those computer classes and she just recently received her PhD in cryptography at IBM’s research lab in Zurich.  Part of a team of cryptographers she has been granted two patents with several more pending in the security field including last year’s US Patent #8,577,029: Oblivious transfer with hidden access control lists.

“The idea is simply that, only you know what you are looking for. The database knows you have the right credentials to access the data, but that’s all. We call it oblivious transfer with anonymous access control.”

For example, if a pharmaceutical company is researching a particular new drug they may want to query a DNA database. To avoid exposing themselves, Maria’s invention would give the company a way to search the database without leaving any breadcrumbs — breadcrumbs that could be used by the competition. The same example could be used for patent databases by companies that don’t want to expose a new field they are considering for investment.

When Maria isn’t in the lab, she is involved in programs like IBM E.X.C.I.T.E (Exploring Interest in Technology and Engineering) which is aimed recruiting middle school girls into the field of science, technology, engineering and math.

“I’d be näive to think that every girl will choose math and science over dancing, but at the very least we are breaking stereotypes and giving them the option to choose what they really like and not what history thinks they should choose.”

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