Distinguished Prof. Atallah Wins Sigma Xi Research Award

Writer(s): Jesica E. Hollinger

Distinguished Professor Mikhail Atallah has been recognized among the elite – winning the Purdue Sigma Xi Scientific Research Award. The only other member of the CS department to earn the award occurred in 1994, when John Rice, former professor and department head was selected.

Since 1950, the Purdue Sigma Xi Chapter has awarded sixty-six recipients. Two of these recipients have been awarded the Nobel Prize for research – Harry Brown and Ei-ichi Negishi, both from the Department of Chemistry. Nine of these 66 recipients have also been elected into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) membership and National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

Recipients are evaluated on the merits of their scientific research accomplishments, rather than their service to the university or other career accomplishments. Applicants were asked to select five of their most significant publications/patents – no small task for Atallah, who has more than 258 publications and eight patents.

Prof. Atallah joined the CS department in 1982. His work falls under the broad category of the design of efficient solutions to important computational and information-security problems, where “efficiency” is in terms of computation time, storage space, network communication, economic cost, and a combination thereof. His work has spanned both the traditional framework, and the parallel/distributed, including cases in which the computation involves multiple parties that do not trust each other.

One of Prof. Atallah’s major accomplishments earned him the 2015 ACM CCS Test of Time Award for his paper, “Dynamic and Efficient Key Management for Access Hierarchies” published in 2005 with fellow authors and winners Marina Blanton, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Notre Dame University, and Keith B. Frikken, a software engineer at Google.  Prof. Atallah was the PhD advisor for both Blanton and Frikken. This paper solves an important problem in cryptographic key management, making the distinction clear between the attacker’s two goals of recovering keys, or even distinguishing keys at random. The solution and its construction are still valid and used today, and the paper is a building block in many constructions for other researchers.

Another of Atallah’s major achievements includes his paper, “Protecting Software Code by Guards” co-authored with his (then) graduate student, Hoi Chang. This paper was  the impetus for Arxan Technologies Inc. that was developed with the assistance of  Chang, Distinguished Professor Emeritus John Rice, Former Assistant Head Tim Korb, and local entrepreneur, Eric Davis. The technology they established is one of the leading providers of software security solutions. In 2013, Arxan was acquired by TA Associates, a private equity firm.

The Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society is not affiliated with a fraternity or sorority, but is a non-profit honor society founded at Cornell University in 1886. The society has more than 500 chapters in North America and around the world. The Greek letters "Sigma" and "Xi" form the acronym of the Society's motto, Spoudon Xynones or "Companions in Zealous Research".