Q&A with Zachary Estrada, Winner of the Mavis Future Faculty Fellowship Award

9/29/2015 David Robertson, CSL

The award is given to provide support for students interested in pursuing a faculty career in the future.

Written by David Robertson, CSL

Zak Estrada
Zak Estrada
Zak Estrada
For the second year in a row, Zachary Estrada, a doctoral student in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois and researcher in CSL, was awarded the Mavis Future Faculty Fellowship achievement. The award supports students interested in pursuing a faculty career in the future. In August, we chatted with Zak, a member of Professor Ravi Iyer's lab, about his research and what this achievement means to him.

CSL: You received the Mavis Future Faculty Fellowship award for the second time. Congratulations!

Zak: Thanks!

CSL: So what are your primary research interests?

Zak: My primary research interests involve computer security and reliability. My group has a strong history of doing things in that area. In particular, I’m looking at cloud computing security and reliability, and different challenges that arise when moving to a cloud environment.

We’re funded right now by the United States Air Force Research Lab and Air Force Office of Scientific Research. There’s been a push inside government institutions at large, and in general in industry, to move stuff to the cloud, so the question is, “What are the security implications of doing so?” Particularly, my group is looking at some advantages we can take from operating in that environment.

CSL: Awesome stuff. What draws you to this line of research personally? Why are you passionate about it?

Zak: I find it fun! Originally, I started my graduate studies in a different area, but I realized I should change after talking with a friend of mine who was also interested in pursuing a faculty career and he asked about what classes I would like to teach. I decided to move into this area because it was more along the line of the material I wanted to teach.

CSL: What classes do you teach?

Zak: I’ve done a teaching assistantship in the ECE department for 391, which is their computer systems engineering class. Before that, I did computer architecture classes for the computer science department. I also did one of the learning in community classes, which was very nice.

CSL: Engineering 315?

Zak: Yeah, that was it.

CSL: I’ve thought about taking that class before but it never worked with my schedule. I’ve heard great things about it though.

Zak: It is. I was a graduate project manager, the mentoring and managing side of it, because I wanted to get lots of teaching experience and do some community service.

CSL: What’s your favorite part of teaching?

Zak: Office hours are great because you get a lot of one-on-one student interaction. In general, I think anytime a student asks a question in class, it is a good part of teaching because you can really figure out what’s going on. Otherwise you’re mostly trying to guess whether people understand things or not.

CSL: It sounds like you enjoy the teaching aspect as much as you do the research, which is refreshing to hear. It’s hard to find a lot of people who are equally passionate about both.

Zak: (Laughs.) Yeah, that is true.

CSL: What kind of impact do you think your research and projects will have? Why do you think it’s important?

Zak: Security, especially. Computer security is a problem that’s not going away by any means. It’s only getting worse. So anything we can do to help that area is going to be important. Everything has a computer in it –cars, what not…. Anything we can do to help alleviate those issues. The reliability goes right along with it too. If we depend on these things more and more, if they fail, that becomes even more of an issue.

We have this big project here at the University of Illinois with the power grid, looking at different security and reliability implications there. Medical devices are another area of importance.

CSL: Who are your role models or inspirations, inside and outside of your research, work, or just life in general?

Zak: Oh wow, hmm, let’s see… role models. I have to think about that. Actually, based entirely on almost one story, Enrico Fermi was always a cool guy because he was a known scientist with a Nobel Prize, but also very humble and modest, which was really admirable.


Based on our conversation with Zak, it’s evident that he is on the right path to reaching his goals of landing a faculty position someday. His charisma, humility and strong work ethic exemplify why he deserved the Mavis award two years consecutively.

When he’s not busy in the lab, Zak said he enjoys getting involved with Knights of Columbus and other service organizations, playing violin, reading books like Catch 22 and Witness to Hope and watching Chicago Blackhawks hockey games.

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This story was published September 29, 2015.