When Debbie Perouli, Ph.D. chose an undergrad program in electrical and computer engineering, she figured she would focus on the electrical courses, knowing it was a strong field with good job opportunities, and ignore the computing side of her degree. In fact, Perouli said, “I actually knew that I did not want to go into computer engineering. All I really knew about computers was related to gaming or browsing the web.” But once she started attending courses, things changed.
“The classes I liked most were the programming classes,” Perouli said, “And what really intrigued me was that I could figure out how to build the computers and how to control the computers. There is so much logic and science going behind it that I found it really fascinating.”
Pursuing her new-found interest, Perouli completed her bachelor’s degree at the National Technical University of Athens in Greece and then went on to earn her Ph.D. in computer science at Purdue University. There, she was spurred by the strengths of the Purdue research team and became interested in a combination of networking and security. Following her degree pursuits, Perouli arrived at Marquette University as an assistant professor and has continued to research cybersecurity while teaching–a combination of roles she strongly values. Across Perouli’s work you can see her passion for combining interests and perspectives and how much she values the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from others.
“As an educator, you also have the opportunity to be a researcher and bring into the classroom the [latest developments in the field],” Perouli explained. “It's one of the reasons that I wanted to be at a place like Marquette: a research institution that has a really serious focus on teaching. In a teaching-only institution you don't have the time to look at what is going on in the field and bring that to the classroom. If you have an institution that also allows the educator to spend a significant amount of time in research then that connection happens very naturally. [At Marquette, faculty] enhance offerings with current trends, research papers, problems that we see in our own research and at the same time we offer more opportunities for students to to work on research projects sometimes within the class, or sometimes, if they want to do something during the summer for example, working for us.”
Perouli’s considerate approach to online instruction
Having taught both asynchronous and synchronous distance learning courses, Perouli has a deep understanding of what makes an online course effective. “I always try to make sure that the videos are short, that instead of having a lecture style video, you can have short duration videos that will be very focused on the topic,” she explains. “And when I create those, I also make sure that I have my face on camera so you don't just look at, you know, drawings or images, you actually see a person talking to you and teaching you. I don't like flipping through slides. I believe that there is a great value in discussion and great value in actually discovering a concept for yourself or finding a solution.”
She also knows that her topics, particularly networking, can seem daunting to learn in an online format and works hard to make lessons approachable. “I try not to make it, you know, here is a dry list of topics that you should know about. I have to say that my favorite type of online class is the synchronous class to make it much more discussion based and Marquette has the advantage of small classes so you are able to actually have a discussion. You are able to assign people to work in small groups, even in an online environment.” Perouli also notes that the smaller class sizes, combined with the flexibility of Marquette’s online format, give students greater flexibility in fitting a class into their schedule. “Due to this, an online class also tends to have students from more diverse pathways who bring interesting perspectives,” said Perouli.
To provide variety in class experience and hone in on professional skills, in smaller classes Perouli has students make several presentations through the semester. “I like to tell them to think of this as we are in a company meeting,” she says, “Each of you is responsible for a specific facet of the company. And you're showing your progress and you're trying to help explain to others what you're doing and why you're doing it.”
With larger classes Perouli uses a different tactic and will split students into groups to collaborate on homework problems and teach each other concepts from a lesson. Knowing that it’s likely difficult to choose team members over video chat, Perouli takes the time to find out what each students’ interests are and learn a bit about their backgrounds to create groups of students well-suited to working with one another.
Coding is just the beginning
As the instructor of some of Marquette’s more in-depth computing courses like Network Design and Security and Advanced Computer Security, Perouli explained that some students might struggle at first to grasp why they should spend time with these complex topics. “I think that anytime you're learning something, the moments that are the most worthwhile and the ones that you make the most progress in your training are the ones that you actually come across something that you have no idea how to do,” Perouli said.
“Some professional roles require you to be able to understand coding and to be able to write some code from time to time, but for many, that is not the primary responsibility in your job,” she said, “You need to be familiar with it, but [many professional roles require you to be] more to be an analyst.”
Perouli says that students really thrive as they begin to be able to apply what they’re learning in class to the world around them. “All students are always excited to be able to understand what they're reading. For example, in the news, or being able to tell a friend that asks them about a specific cyber security attack. I think students are always happy to have explained to them how something works so that they can actually help others understand it as well.”
In Network Design and Security, Perouli’s students complete assignments in which they replicate attacks in a controlled environment to learn about security vulnerabilities in protocol design and countermeasures–topics that are so relevant she has to reevaluate them each semester. “A lot of what we're doing in that class is we don't really have a standard textbook for,” Perouli explained, “We're trying to look at advanced aspects of computer security and those advanced aspects cannot be found in the textbook because our field changes so much that, you know, those textbooks don't have the time to be written. So we're looking at the papers that are published in conferences and journals to look at the latest uses.”
Learn computer and information science from real experts
While some may see a bootcamp as a quick path to a new career, Perouli cautions against it. “A coding bootcamp or certificate program will typically leave out systems classes that enhance the student’s understanding on why computers or networks are designed in specific ways, and what are the consequences of these design choices,” she explained. “The Marquette master’s program can provide better training in both the theory and the practice of science.” Marquette’s online Master of Science in Computer and Information Science (CIS) will give you a diversified and in-depth understanding of the field to prepare you for a rewarding career. “CIS is a field with rapid advancements that are exciting and have a big impact,” Perouli said, “In cybersecurity specifically, which is my area of interest, there is an urgent need to increase the number of professionals and train them to possess a strong and diverse set of skills.”