Mingyan Liu – Researcher, Teacher, Entrepreneur
When asked to describe her research interests, Professor Mingyan Liu notes that she has always been drawn to projects “that are intellectually stimulating and have the potential for clear social impact.” Her diverse career bears that out. Since joining the U-M College of Engineering faculty in 2000, Liu’s research has spanned a broad range of topics and resulted in an equally broad range of achievements—culminating in the University’s 2018 Distinguished Innovator of the Year Award.
From Wireless Sensors to Predictive Analytics for Cybersecurity
After receiving her Ph.D in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park, Liu worked primarily on resource allocation problems in mobile, ad hoc, and wireless and sensor networks, much of which involved building mathematical models. Around 2013, her research focus changed when U-M colleague Michael Bailey, currently with the University of Illinois Internet Measurement Group, presented her with an intriguing challenge: could she devise ways to model a set of Internet measurement data collected from data traffic among millions of Internet hosts that were capable of capturing a variety of malicious activities such as spam and phishing?
Although the subject represented a departure from Liu’s typical research activity, her interest was piqued. As she recalls, “I decided that I wanted to know whether the same data capturing behavior at the host level might allow one to also capture and quantify the cybersecurity posture of entire organizations.” Her work led to a series of studies aggregating the malicious data along organizational boundaries, making observations, developing metrics, and pairing those metrics with actual data breaches.
“There is a difference between risk and security when we talk about cybersecurity,” she explains. “As someone trained in systems engineering and principles, I’m much more interested in risk assessment at a macroscopic level. In this case, my goal was to produce actionable information that pointed out structural and policy weaknesses within an organization, weaknesses which increased it cyber risks.”
Ultimately, Liu and her team were able to analyze organizational data sets and determine the likelihood of a data breach with 90 percent accuracy. This was one of the very first studies that applied machine learning techniques to make sense of Internet measurement data. Given the current onslaught of corporate data breaches, which compromise the privacy of millions of consumers each year, the commercial promise of their technology was evident.
Entering the Entrepreneurial Realm: QuadMetrics
After working intensively with Tech Transfer and their mentor-in-residence program, Liu and her team launched a startup in late 2014. QuadMetrics offered two products for enterprise-wide risk assessment and decision support. The first service, Signet Scope, gauges an organization’s security postures based on a variety of detailed externally observable data. The second service, Signet Profile, provides companies with decision support tools for allocating or increasing their security budgets. The same service can also be used by cyber insurance providers to determine premium levels.
Just 18 months after launch—a new record for any U-M startup—QuadMetrics was acquired by FICO, a California-based software analytics company that specializes in measuring consumer credit risk. With research support from QuadMetrics, FICO now offers enterprise security scores that assess a corporation’s exposure to hackers and other cybersecurity risks.
An Advocate for “The Engineering of Everything”
In 2018, Liu was appointed the College of Engineering’s Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). Chief among her goals, Liu is looking to build new collaborative opportunities with other U-M units, recruit more nontraditional students, fill in curriculum gaps such as policy and security education, and expand the number of students engaged in tech transfer.
Above all, she plans to stress “the importance and imperative of innovation” and to encourage students and faculty to take creative risks and adopt new and novel methods when searching for solutions. This collaborative, multidisciplinary approach is something she herself has modeled throughout her career, and which she now promotes as PI of a new $6.5 million Multidisciplinary Research Initiative Program (MURI) .
“ECE is both broad and fundamental, a natural bridge into many other areas and disciplines,” says Liu. “A lot of interesting things happen when people with different backgrounds are driven together by common objectives of social utility and impact.”