Penelope Schankula, a Cheriton School of Computer Science student who helps build cybersecurity systems

Friday, December 2, 2022

The following is a condensed article by Rose Simone; see original at https://uwaterloo.ca/magazine/fall-2022/feature/cybersecurity-builders

Penelope Schankula (BCS in progress) is a builder. She may not have been aware of that when she took a co-op job at the cybersecurity company Arctic Wolf in Waterloo, but she is part of a new generation helping build the region’s cybersecurity cluster today. 

Dozens of companies in the region are providing cybersecurity, embedded security, risk threat assessments, blockchain security, cryptography and quantum cryptography services for Canada and the world. The University of Waterloo continues to advance cybersecurity innovation, making it a hotbed for talent for fintech companies, insurance companies and banks, including RBC, which invested in a cybersecurity lab at the university in 2018. 

Penelope sees this growing cluster and realizes she is part of something bigger.

photo of Penelope Schankula

Penelope Schankula is an undergraduate student at the Cheriton School of Computer Science with a passion for machine learning and software development.

“This has been growing for quite a while, so I am not on the ground floor, but I feel like I am contributing to that growth. A lot of computing technology companies come and go in Waterloo, but this is not just a fad. Cybersecurity is here to stay,” adds Penelope, who has completed her second year in computer science. This was her second co-op term at Arctic Wolf.

Tony LaMantia (BA ’87), president and CEO of Waterloo EDC, the economic development corporation that is a point of contact for companies looking to locate, relocate or expand in Waterloo, says the cybersecurity ecosystem in Waterloo Region is globally significant. 

 “There are three words that I would use to describe the ecosystem: diverse, dynamic and dense,” he said.

By diverse, I mean our cluster is uniquely broad, covering everything from cybersecurity in general as well as risk and threat assessment, embedded security, vehicle-to-vehicle authentication and security infrastructure, blockchain security, fintech security, cryptography and quantum cryptography. So, it is diverse and dynamic,” he said. 

It is also dense in terms of the number of companies relative to the size of the region. Some of these companies are within blocks of one another. “We just punch above our weight in terms of cybersecurity,” he adds.

This abundant talent in computer science, mathematics and quantum computing has resulted in numerous homegrown start-ups in this space and has also drawn international companies looking for talent. 

He cites the example of the late Scott Vanstone (BMath ’70, MMath ’71, PhD ’74), a mathematician and cryptographer in the Faculty of Mathematics, who along with ECE Professor Gordon B. Agnew (BASc ’78, PhD ’82), an engineering professor, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus Ron Mullin (BA ’60, PhD ’64) in Combinatorics and Optimization, founded Certicom in 1985.

Certicom was acquired by BlackBerry in 2009. BlackBerry Certicom has industry-leading expertise in elliptic curve cryptography and has established the world’s largest ECC- based patent portfolio.

And before that, the university attracted the late Distinguished Professor Emeritus William Tutte (DMath ’87), who was one of the legendary wartime codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England during the Second World War. After Professor Tutte arrived in Canada and took a position at Waterloo in 1962, he helped build a top-rated Faculty of Mathematics that attracted some of the brightest minds in the field. That too helped foster the cybersecurity sector. 

Today’s computing technology is rapidly evolving, which is why the cybersecurity industry is eager for talented young people interested in blockchain, quantum computing, and machine learning and artificial intelligence, areas in which the university has considerable expertise. 

Penelope, for example, has been working with the Arctic Wolf team that is developing the company’s machine learning platform. “The applications that are being built will allow the company to leverage machine learning to achieve its goals in reducing cyber risk,” she said.

As a teenager, Penelope loved playing with computers, but she initially considered going into theoretical physics. 

She changed her mind when she saw the range of opportunities offered by the Cheriton School of Computer Science. “I discovered that I could do something cutting edge, in demand, that I could leverage economically,” she said.  But more importantly, she saw the opportunity to do some good in the world. 

Popular movies like War Games have thrilling scenes of young hackers breaking into top-secret computers, but Penelope says cybersecurity, the opposite side of that coin, can be just as exciting. “I would rather work for a company that is protecting people, and protecting their data, than a company whose primary source of profit is stealing their data.”

Penelope has also become part of a growing trend of women getting into the cybersecurity space. According to market research company Cybersecurity Ventures, women held 25 per cent of cybersecurity jobs globally in 2021, up from 20 per cent in 2019. 

The team Penelope works with during her co-op terms at Arctic Wolf includes women who are full-time developers and other female co-op students like herself. “In our company, there is a very large focus on promoting diversity,” she said. 

For her third year, Penelope will be at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, as part of an academic exchange program. “It’s an awesome opportunity to experience another culture in a different place and gain some new experiences,” she said. 

Penelope is not certain exactly where her career will lead after she graduates from Waterloo but hopes it might integrate machine learning and cybersecurity. The fact that cybersecurity is constantly changing and evolving with new technologies makes it an exciting field, she adds. “People are always finding new ways to attack systems and so we’re always finding new ways to stop them.”

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