Computational scientist takes an unconventional path to White House recognition

March 22, 2016

By Joyce P. Brayboy, U.S. Army Research Laboratory

Jin-Hee Cho excelled at science and math in Seoul, South Korea, where it was culturally acceptable for a young woman leaving her alma mater, Yeouido Girls' High School, to pursue liberal arts.

By the time Cho graduated from Ewha Womans University, established in 1886 as the first modern educational institute for Korean women, she had settled for a major in Social Work and a minor in Psychology.

Cho's journey brought her to the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Network Science Division to explore how trust management could affect tactical decision making and cyber security in multi-genre networks, and it has recently resulted in her winning the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists in the early stages of their careers.

Jin-Hee was one of 105 researchers who were announced by President Barack Obama as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE.

Cho guesses the part of her success, "I believe an individual's contribution for success would affect not more than 30 percent; about 70 percent would be a mix of other things such as help from other people, timely opportunities, and good research programs. It all fell in place for me," she said. "This is kind of a miracle." But she emphasized "The most important part of the 70 percent would be people. I owe a debt of many thanks to people who helped me at the right times and places."

She was a good student with a Christian upbringing, who listened to the suggestion of her teachers and parents who encouraged her to study social work abroad before she finally pursued her strongest interest in basic research.

She may not have guessed at the time that in 1997 that Ewha Womans University would one day break ground on a global center for the basic science research that "will lead future science endeavors."

Instead, Cho found herself in Saint Louis, Missouri, as a social worker, following her studies at Washington University in St. Louis where she specialized in social and economic development.

The social work was interesting but as an introvert by nature, "I enjoyed the research but not the social part," Cho said.

She married just after finishing her Master in Social Work at Washington University with a choice to make about staying with the conventional career or following the potentially risky decision to study something else she loved.

"I had thought about switching, but I had not yet had the courage to make such a big change," Cho said.

By early in 2001, she was ready.

"Naturally, I think of the big picture," Cho said. "I look at my entire life and what I would like to accomplish."

Cho went to community college to complete prerequisite classes required for a master's program in Computer Science.

"I applied for master's programs in Computer Science at nearby universities where we lived after my first semester at the community college and thankfully, I got into my first choice, Virginia Tech," Cho said.

Cho began to enjoy the learning process after a tough first year of settling into the requirements of the program. Cho continued her graduate study in a doctoral program at Virginia Tech in 2004 as she and her husband were also thinking about expanding their family.

Fortunately their plan went well; their first son was born in 2005, the same year she passed her doctoral qualifier exam and survived the first year in the doctoral program. She recalls "I could not have finished my Ph.D. without my families' support, especially moral support from my husband and daily support from my-mother-in-law."

After finishing her Ph.D. in Dec. 2008, she joined ARL as a postdoctoral researcher through the ARL and Oak Ridge Associated Universities postdoctoral research fellowship program. She started working on trust management research in multi-genre networks.

As the concept of trust originally derives from social sciences, Cho's dual backgrounds in social sciences and computer science fit well for pursuing multidisciplinary research such as trust management in multi-genre networks.

"In the beginning of my study in Computer Science, I thought my social sciences background never would be used in my career again. But multidisciplinary research opportunities at the lab allowed me to fully apply my expertise in both areas for tactical networks, to protect and defend Army networks in a better way," she said.

Another thing that is notable is that the Network Science Collaborative Technology Alliance that she worked through shaped her approach through early exposure with leading government, academic and industry scientists in the Social/Cognitive Network Academic Research Center.

And finally, Cho herself, maintains a steadfast research, teaching and learning commitment.

"I want to keep myself developed in each of the areas. The end goal, is only one, to be a good scientist producing solid research," she said.

She started teaching at Virginia Tech in 2012 and has also taught at George Washington University since 2014, graduate courses at both institutions.

Cho is a believer in using the MOOC List, an aggregator of Massive Open Online Courses, and has completed a number of online courses to enhance her research skills.

As a continuous learner, Cho says "I love MOOC because I believe learning knowledge should be cheap and accessible to anyone who has passion for learning.

"As a scientist, I could have never guessed the outcomes in this magnitude. I see everything that has led to this day as nothing short of amazing."

Her family, great friends, her leadership's keen sense of assigning research and the mentoring she has received from her colleagues in the Tactical Network Assurance Branch have kept her grounded.

As Cho breaks starts a new chapter in her career with the PECASE recognition coming up this spring, and the possibility of meeting the president, she smiles. "I'm extremely honored to receive this award from President Obama. Actually I am very nervous but very excited at the same time," she said.

"My fifth grade son advises, 'Mom, you need to practice, because the president may not be familiar with your Korean accent,'" she said.

The young women in South Korea who follow in Cho's footsteps at the all-women's school may not feel the pressure she did to make career decisions based on gender, but thanks, at least in small part to Cho, they could point to one fellow computer scientist who followed her dream.

Meet other specialized researchers in the Network Science Division at the Network Science Research Laboratory Ribbon Cutting Ceremony that will be hosted by Maj. Gen. John F. Wharton, Commanding General, U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command and Dr. Thomas P. Russell, Director, U.S. Army Research Laboratory, at Adelphi Laboratory Center, 9 a.m. on March 25. For more information, email public_affairs@arl.army.mil with NSRL in the subject.

 

Last Update / Reviewed: March 22, 2016