Dr. Fred Wright - Bridging Research and Education

Fred WrightDr. Wright teaches the following courses:

Could you share with us your journey at GTRI as a researcher in Defense Technology? What led you to this field and GTRI in particular?

My journey at GTRI began upon completing my master's degree at Georgia Tech in 1987. I was drawn to the proximity of GTRI as it allowed me to continue with my studies while embarking on a professional path. What immediately struck me about GTRI was the rich tapestry of technology being employed there. The vast range of problems we worked on demanded a diverse set of technological solutions, and this was highly appealing to me.

Over time, GTRI presented me with the unique opportunity to shift my research focus multiple times. This flexibility isn't something every researcher at GTRI experiences, but it was a key part of my personal journey. Of course, there were challenges with each change of direction, but the benefits greatly outweighed any drawbacks.

GTRI has held my interest and loyalty over the course of my career due to its dynamic nature. The chance to engage with different technologies, to find solutions to diverse problems, and to serve our sponsors has kept me motivated and enthusiastic about the work we do. And that's the crux of why I've remained at GTRI for the majority of my career.

Your research work at GTRI is renowned. Could you delve into some of the most exciting projects you've been part of and the impact they've had on Defense Technology?

Indeed, I have had the privilege of being involved in some groundbreaking projects at GTRI. One project that stands out commenced in the mid-90s and spanned over a decade. It involved developing an automation capability using artificial intelligence and expert systems to enhance the electronic warfare self-protection mechanisms for single seater aircraft for the Air Force. The journey from conceptualization to fielding was an intricate process, requiring extensive team collaboration, rigorous flight and lab testing, and significant optimization efforts. The opportunity to witness the transformation of a concept into a field-tested, impactful solution was incredibly rewarding.

In addition, I worked on developing networks for tactical environments during the emergence of Network-Centric warfare. This project revolved around establishing systems to facilitate information exchange between different nodes, such as infantry or aircraft, which was significantly different from conventional corporate or industrial control environments. This necessitated both technical and operational learning, and involved multiple groups within GTRI. This work led to the creation of robust research capabilities and programs, the impact of which extends across various military services, the defense department, and even to some of our allies. This effort continues today and is a testament to GTRI's enduring influence in the field.

Lastly, I transitioned from working on network-centric warfare and command and control systems to leading GTRI's foray into cybersecurity. From the early 2000s, I was involved in establishing GTRI's cybersecurity lab, now known as CIPHER, which has grown to become one of the major research areas within GTRI.

How does the work you are or have been involved in directly contribute to advancements in the defense industry? Could you provide some examples of your work that has been implemented in real-world scenarios?

One of the key contributions we made in the area of network-centric warfare and control systems was the development of a testing capability that could operate in various operational environments, whether it be sea, land, or air. This system was designed to collect and push data in real-time and execute mission threads across the network in an automated manner. It not only ensured the functionality of the networks, but also guaranteed the interoperability of applications and visualization systems within the tactical platforms used for the mission.

In the cybersecurity domain, we've focused on understanding threat capabilities and innovating new defensive technologies. A notable example is the development of fuzzing capabilities for embedded systems. This method has proven invaluable for identifying vulnerabilities and enhancing the security of these systems.

Furthermore, we've developed security architectures tailored to both government and commercial entities based on threat models and risk analysis. This work has involved dealing with very specific technology situations related to threats, networks, applications, and services, as well as taking a broader view to consider overall architecture. In each instance, our efforts have been geared towards providing the most robust and effective defense solutions possible.

Research often involves complex concepts and methodologies. How do you distill this complexity when sharing your findings with non-experts, including the students you instruct?

One of the key challenges in teaching, particularly when dealing with complex concepts, is making those concepts accessible and understandable to individuals who may not have a deep background in the field. A core part of this is the ability to break down problems into more manageable pieces. However, it's not enough just to simplify the problem; it's crucial to help the students understand why these pieces are organized the way they are, how they fit into the broader context, and the different ways we approach the problem depending on what we're trying to understand or address.

Further, when teaching subjects like cybersecurity, it's vital to present the material in a way that not only aligns with the existing standards and policies but also connects with real-world technologies and scenarios. This requires going beyond a step-by-step approach to include real-world examples that illustrate the twists and turns one may encounter in practice. By doing this, we acknowledge the inherent complexity of the field and equip our students with a more nuanced understanding, rather than simply teaching them a rote series of steps to follow.

In essence, the goal is to engage learners not just in 'what' to do, but also in 'why' and 'how' - fostering a deeper comprehension that can serve them well in their future endeavors.

As an instructor at GTRI, how does your research inform your teaching methodology and course content?

My research at GTRI greatly informs both my teaching methodology and course content. The real-world examples I use in class often stem directly from my research projects. These examples not only provide context and relevance to the material, but they also offer insights into real-world applications and solutions.

Furthermore, many of the demonstrations or presentation materials I use in class are drawn directly from my research work. These can range from visualizations of complex concepts to case studies from completed projects. This gives students a unique perspective, as they are not only learning from theoretical constructs but also from the actual output of professional research endeavors.

Moreover, presenting research material also gives students an appreciation for the historical progression of the topics we're discussing. They get to see how these concepts and technologies have evolved and matured over time, which helps them better understand the current state of the field and anticipate potential future developments. In essence, my research doesn't just inform my teaching – it's an integral part of it.

Could you discuss some of the latest trends in Defense Technology research, and how GTRI contributes to these?

Keeping abreast of the latest trends in Defense Technology research is an essential aspect of our work at GTRI. Our research projects often position us at the forefront of these trends, and our role extends beyond simply finding solutions or building products - we actively engage with and contribute to the advancement of these emerging trends.

Many of us instructors at GTRI have been involved in taking new trends and not only implementing them but also enhancing and contributing to their development. In some instances, we've even pioneered new concepts and technologies ourselves.

This dynamic engagement with the cutting edge of Defense Technology research forms a crucial part of our mission at GTRI. We strive to advance the field, innovate new solutions, and foster a culture of continual learning and exploration, and we integrate these values into our teaching as well. As such, GTRI contributes significantly to the ongoing evolution of Defense Technology research and development.

Could you share the importance of multidisciplinary research in the field of Defense Technology and how it's integrated in your work and teaching?

The importance of multidisciplinary research in Defense Technology cannot be overstated. In our work at GTRI, we often encounter problems that draw on multiple disciplines. It's not unusual for a single project to incorporate elements of software development, various fields of physics, electronics, data storage, high-performance computing, and advanced algorithms, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.

This multidisciplinary approach is woven into our teaching as well. For instance, when we teach a subject like cybersecurity for embedded systems, we don't limit ourselves to the cybersecurity aspect alone. Instead, we delve into specific types of embedded systems, discussing their applications in contexts like aviation or industrial controls, along with the standard information technologies. This approach not only deepens students' understanding of the subject at hand, but also broadens their awareness of how different fields intersect and interact.

Another example is when teaching Electro-Optics, we cover the theoretical and mathematical basis of how electro-optics works, such as the function of a typical camera. But we also explore the nuances of how that function changes based on environmental factors - for instance, what happens when the camera is placed on a satellite, submerged underwater, or exposed to sea spray.

In essence, we strive to provide an integrated, comprehensive understanding of these complex technologies, incorporating multiple disciplines into our teaching to reflect the realities of the field. This multidisciplinary perspective is crucial in preparing our students for the multifaceted challenges they will encounter in their careers.

As informed by your ongoing research, what skills and knowledge do you aim to impart to students in your course?

In light of my ongoing research, I aim to equip students with a well-rounded understanding of the technology we are studying. I strive to ensure they grasp the big picture – how this technology fits into the broader technological landscape, and how it relates to various operational areas. I believe that understanding the wider context is just as important as mastering the specific details of the subject matter.

However, other instructors may have a different focus. Some prefer to delve deeply into a specific area, providing students with an in-depth understanding, contextualized by real-world applications, but perhaps not covering as wide a range of related topics.

At GTRI, we value both approaches. Depending on the subject matter, we may integrate both broad and in-depth perspectives within a single course, or we may distribute them across different courses. The combination of expertise and the diversity of perspectives among our faculty are key to providing a balanced and comprehensive learning experience.

In essence, we aim to prepare our students not only with the specific skills and knowledge needed to excel in their field, but also with the broader understanding that will allow them to adapt to new challenges and continuously evolving technology landscapes.

Could you provide examples of successful outcomes from students who have taken your course and how their learning has been informed by your research?

Indeed, we don't always have visibility into the direct impact of our teaching on students' careers, but there are a couple of scenarios that give us rewarding insights.

Firstly, we have instances where our students go on to collaborate with us on research projects over time. One such example is our work in cybersecurity within the aviation field, specifically with the Navy. Here, we have had the privilege of witnessing first-hand how our teachings have influenced and shaped not only the broader organization but also the professional development of individual personnel. Observing the growth and maturation of their skills is truly gratifying.

Secondly, we often reconnect with former students at industry events such as research projects or professional conferences. On several occasions, alumni have made an effort to share how they've applied the knowledge gained in our courses throughout their careers. Some even admit that they didn't fully grasp the significance of what they were learning at the time, but they've since realized the importance and applicability of the lessons. Such feedback is incredibly fulfilling as it affirms that the knowledge we impart is not only retained but also put into practice.

In essence, the successful outcomes we often see are not just in the immediate academic accomplishments, but in the long-term professional development and contributions our students make in their respective fields. This gives us immense satisfaction, reinforcing our commitment to our research-informed teaching approach.

How do you foresee the future of AI, ML, Data Science research, and how is GTRI preparing to meet these future challenges and opportunities?

The future is incredibly promising for AI, ML, and Data Science. These fields are experiencing rapid growth, with AI becoming increasingly prevalent across various sectors of society. Here at GTRI, we're actively developing programs and courses informed by our ongoing research projects in these areas. We've started building a comprehensive program focused on artificial intelligence and analytics, which will encompass both a broad overview and in-depth studies of specific technologies. But there's much more in the pipeline.

Our history with these technologies dates back to the early stages of their development. We've been engaged in research on neural networks since at least the 1990s, and possibly earlier. One of our key researchers in this field was Kathy Schlag. I personally started working with artificial intelligence around the mid-90s. It took significant effort and time to implement and field certain concepts, and we learned valuable lessons about the suitability of different types of AI for various problems.

We've been cautious with our terminology, often avoiding the term 'AI' because it can elicit apprehension among some individuals. But that doesn't diminish our substantial body of work in this area. Despite our extensive experience, the rapidly evolving landscape of AI, ML, and Data Science means that there's always something new to learn and incorporate into our research and teaching. This is a challenge we readily embrace, as it keeps us on the cutting edge of these exciting fields.

One of the burgeoning areas of our work at GTRI is health analytics, which has seen substantial growth over the past five years. This was particularly evident during the pandemic when we worked extensively with organizations like the CDC to decipher and interpret various data sets.

We're profoundly interested in and committed to developing a program focused on health analytics. Our plan is to seamlessly integrate the AI and ML work we've already discussed but tailored to the context of public health and clinical outcomes, among other areas. This interdisciplinary approach is crucial for tackling complex health challenges and pushing the boundaries of what's achievable in public health. We're excited about the potential that lies at the intersection of AI, ML, and health analytics, and we're eager to contribute to its evolution.

Finally, for those considering enrolling in your course or engaging with GTRI, what makes the experience unique compared to other institutions offering Defense Technology education?

What sets our courses at GTRI apart from traditional academic institutions offering Defense Technology education is the unique blend of theory and real-world application. While we certainly build upon the foundation you've gained from college courses in math, science, and engineering, our focus is firmly set on applied research and the practical implementation of these concepts.

Our courses aren't just about regurgitating theory. We delve into challenging, real-world examples drawn from demanding projects and programs. We don't shy away from complexities but instead address them head-on, equipping you with practical skills that can be directly applied in the field.

The unique aspect of GTRI is that all our instructors are practicing researchers and problem solvers deeply involved in the topics they teach. They aren't solely educators developing training programs. They are professionals who bring their daily experiences into the classroom, giving you a glimpse into the real-world of defense technology. After the class is over, they return to their research, continually refining their expertise and ensuring the relevance of their instruction. This direct connection between ongoing research and teaching provides a learning experience that's truly unique to GTRI.