Winnie Cheng

Winnie Cheng
Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL photographer

Where did you grow up:

Hong Kong, China and Calgary/Vancouver, Canada.

What was your academic path before coming to grad school at MIT?

It was a bit of a biased random walk. I did my undergrad in my ‘hometown’ at the University of British Columbia. In the first year of my undergrad, I wanted to be a Mechanical Engineer and design the next generation of race cars. Then I got interested in electronics and software and ended up with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering (a mix of EE and CS). I was part of the honors co-op program which gave me a broad spectrum of technical work experience including designing laser diodes in bunny suits and the opportunity to live and work with engineers/scientists in Japan, Germany and various parts of Canada. So after graduation, I headed off to the Silicon Valley looking to learn more about silicon. While working full-time as a system designer for networking systems, I did a Master’s in Electrical Engineer at Stanford specializing in VLSI. I enjoy learning about (and hopefully coming up with) new technology and demystifying complex systems so I applied for the PhD program at MIT to catch a glimpse of the engineering world from the shoulders of giants.

What did you want to be when you were younger? Is that still an interest of yours?

When I was in first grade, we were asked to write a mini-essay in school on what we wanted to be, I handed in a blank essay at the time as I had not yet learned the words “scientists” or “engineers”.

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?

I like to play ice hockey and saxophone though I am not very good at them.

What department are you currently working in, and when did you start there?

I joined the Programming Methodology Group led by Prof Barbara Liskov, in 2004.

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?

I am working on a new programming model and distributed computing platform that can protect sensitive data such as SSNs and medical records. I am very excited about this project as it enables programs to run across many different machines yet users can still feel safe about their private data.

What is your favorite thing about working at CSAIL?

When I want to take a break from reading papers or debugging my system, I can go learn something interesting (and often totally unrelated to my research) from the CSAIL seminars while enjoying delicious cookies and brownies.

What effect do you think your area of work will have on the world in the next decade?

In the next decade, the computing landscape will change radically with many initiatives already under way to push for web-based computing and cloud infrastructures. Data from various sources will be intermixed and propagated through compute nodes of different sizes (e.g., servers, laptops, mobile phones, sensors, etc..). It will be increasingly important to have a good abstraction to define sensitive data and specify how they should be handled. They are also many system design issues that must be addressed to provide highly inter-dependent and scalable infrastructures.

What are your future plans?

I plan to graduate in June 2009 and architect systems that will be used by lots of people.

What advice would you give a prospective CSAIL graduate student?

Take advantage of the many opportunities that MIT has to offer. Talk to experts in different areas, work with people excited about technology and making things happen, learn and participate in things you never thought you would do.