Science Stories
Big data, big dreams
Meet PhD student Chen Attias

As a high school student, Chen Attias majored in physics, economics, and math for her high school matriculation exams—performing with high scores across the board—but there were no girls in the computer major, so she did not consider it an option. But that changed when she enlisted in the elite 8200 unit of the Israel Defense Forces—the military intelligence division responsible for collecting signal intelligence and code decryption—where she learned not only that she was technically adept at working with the computers, but that she enjoyed it as well.

Chen went on to study electrical engineering, receiving her BSc at the Technion’s EMET Research-Oriented Excellence Program for outstanding students. There, she was involved in the design of fast WiFi communication systems, and developed algorithms for detecting and tracking the frequency of harmonic signals such as bat sounds and whale songs.

When she enrolled in the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics for her master’s studies, it wasn’t the first time she had stepped foot on campus. As an undergraduate, Chen participated in the Amos de-Shalit Summer School and the Young Weizmann Scholars program, which allowed her the opportunity to spend time in Weizmann Institute labs and meet principal investigators.

“I always knew that I liked the theoretical approach at the Weizmann Institute and was interested in pursuing a research path,” says Chen.

Today, she is a second-year PhD student in computer science under the joint mentorship of Prof. Robert Krauthgamer and Prof. Boaz Nadler, and supported by a scholarship from Milvia Perinot.

Chen is currently developing algorithms to analyze massive and complex datasets—otherwise known as ‘big data.’ Such adaptive algorithms are needed to handle the burgeoning amount of data in a spectrum of fields—from genomics to physics. Her focus now is similarity searches: algorithms that search for specific similarities in large datasets in a quicker and more efficient manner.

Opening the doors for other women

Chen has been successful not only in her computer science research and studies, receiving the prestigious Intel Academic Excellence Award in 2012, but also in promoting women in science. Indeed, her extracurricular initiatives are nearly as plentiful as her research activity. She initiated a Weizmann Institute forum for female computer scientists and mathematicians that includes faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students. Her goal was “to create a strong and supportive community for women in the department through soft skills workshops, talks with female role models, and other events and activities.” She also co-organized an event with a colleague from Bar-Ilan University and in collaboration with Google, aimed at encouraging young women to pursue careers in computer science.

And that’s not all: she founded a new debate club as part of the Feinberg Graduate School’s career development program, and participated in the Microsoft “Women of Excellence” Program at the Microsoft Israel R&D Center in Herzliya. This is a program for outstanding students in computer science and related fields, which enables women to develop personally and professionally, network, and share advice and experiences.

Last year, Chen was one of a select group of 20 women from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa recognized by Google for their academic excellence, leadership skills, and passion for advancing diversity in computer science. She volunteers in Project Mehamemet (“Code Goddess”), which teaches high school girls about computer software coding and encourages them to reach their fullest potential in what is still a male-dominated discipline.

And that’s just in Israel. In November, Chen was chosen to participate in a group of 12 alumnae from the 8200 army unit who have embarked on successful careers in academia and high-tech for a week-long visit to the U.S. to meet prospective investors and executives, as part of the 8200 Alumni Association’s Woman2Woman program. The program’s goal is to broker connections in the U.S. market and to provide young women with role models of women who have been successful in the Israeli business world.

Chen was paired with Dr. Orna Berry, Vice President and General Manager of the Dell EMC Excellence Center in Israel. Berry was also the first woman to serve as Chief Scientist, the highest position in the Economy Ministry’s Israel Innovation Authority.

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