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Anita D’Amico Ph.D. ’84: Secure Decisions in the Cyber World

Alumni, Executives and Leaders


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Published:

April 3, 2012
 

Anita D’Amico Ph.D. ’84: Secure Decisions in the Cyber World


 

Member of Adelphi University’s Profiles in Success program.

Director, Secure Decisions Division at Applied Visions

Memorable Faculty: “George Stricker was the first person to whom I was introduced at the Derner Institute, and I remember our first interaction very well. The Institute had not offered me any tuition assistance, and I simply could not afford to attend graduate school without it. George must have seen some promise in me, because he unearthed some tuition assistance. When classes were underway he offered me a graduate assistantship in the computing center. That job served as my introduction to information systems, an area in which I work today. Pat Ross was my dissertation advisor, and the Institute’s statistician. Since I was making some extra money helping other students with statistics, I met with him whenever I was trying to solve a thorny statistics problem – which was often. He was incredibly helpful and patient, and we spent many hours talking about statistics, the Islanders, fishing, and family.”

Greatest Personal Accomplishment: “It’s very difficult to have a personal life and work at the pace that I do. So I consider it a great personal accomplishment to have balanced being married, raising my son, and having a family and social life.”

Advice for Students: “I cannot think of anything more important than being able to express clearly and precisely, in written or oral form, what it is you are doing, why you are doing it, and what is going to happen next.”

Secure Decisions in the Cyber World

Anita D’Amico can still recall the words spoken at Northrop Corporation’s elite manager training program in 1993. The corporation’s executive vice president, Dr. James Roche, asked, “Does anybody know what information warfare is? Because that’s where the company is going.”

Dr. D’Amico gave this question thought and came to a startling conclusion. “I thought I knew what information warfare was,” she says. “It was like cyber warfare, where you need to defend yourself against the bad guys trying to attack your network. Then I thought: if that’s what it really is, we’re not in that business, even if Dr. Roche thinks we are.”

She decided to write a letter and send it directly to the executive vice president. “Basically I said, ‘You’ve been saying the future of the company is information warfare, but I’m here on the frontline of the advance technology, and I don’t see it…so here are ten ideas,’” she says.

“I violated the Northrop protocol by doing this,” says Dr. D’Amico. “I came from Grumman (Northrop had just bought them), where senior executives were accessible. However, Northrop Grumman operated with a chain-of-command akin to the military. And I clearly violated that with my assertive letter to the executive vice president, bypassing all my management in the process. One lesson from this that I pass on to Adelphi students is: understand the culture in which you work before taking action.”

In this particular case, however, her breach of protocol did not jeopardize her job. She was called into a video conference with Northrop’s senior executives, but instead of being rebuked for bypassing the corporation’s senior staff, she was asked to head up the first information warfare team at Northrop Grumman. She stills works in the area of cyber warfare, and has become a noted expert in the field.

Ever since graduating from Adelphi, Dr. D’Amico has demonstrated an ability to assess a situation, find a solution, and move forward – full force. Her forward thinking and bold action have made her an integral player in a number of groundbreaking opportunities throughout her tremendously successful career.

“When I was finished with my coursework at Adelphi, I was broke,” she says. Rather than work on her dissertation full time, she got a job as a human factor psychologist at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. Her research, conducted on a state-of-the-art ship simulator, focused on why people get into accidents at sea. Her experience studying human performance and her dissertation research on the effect of circadian rhythm and sleep deprivation on watch standing behavior in the merchant marine prepared her for several stints as an expert witness, including on the Exxon Valdez case.

“My career started at a time when there wasn’t a glass ceiling. It was a concrete ceiling,” says Dr. D’Amico. “At my first professional conference in the merchant marine industry I was the only woman among 100 men. Each speaker got up and started with ‘Lady…and gentlemen.’” The negative resistance she faced as a female however, never fazed her. She swiftly moved up the ranks, and soon became the research director at the Computer Aided Operations Research Facility (CAORF), a U.S. Maritime Administration research facility specializing in ship simulation research.

In 1982, while completing her doctorate, she was placed in charge of CAORF’s most prestigious research program. She managed the major ship simulation research project to redesign the most treacherous portion of the Panama Canal. “We needed to determine how wide the narrowest part needed to be for pilots to navigate safely,” she said.

With an expanding resume, record of research, and reputation, it is no surprise that she got a call from a headhunter in 1985 requesting her expertise. “Sally Ride had just gone up as the first U.S. astronaut, and now NASA was interested in issues that women would have in space,” she says. Specifically concerned with feminine hygiene in space, the Grumman Corporation was looking for females to work on NASA’s habitation module. Dr. D’Amico joined the team as one of Grumman’s first female factor psychologists.

At Grumman Aerospace, she was involved in a number of emerging projects, from working on the displays and controls for the space program’s remote manipulator arm to the automation of Joint STARS surveillance aircraft operator functions. Over time she elevated herself to program director at Grumman Data Systems.

After Grumman was bought by the Northrop Corp in 1993, she was one of just seven Grumman employees chosen for Northrop’s “boot camp” for technical program managers, where she was introduced to Dr. James Roche, and launched into the world of cyber security. “That was my entry into information warfare,” says Dr. D’Amico of her infamous memo which led to her tenure as manager of Northrop Grumman’s pioneering information warfare operation.

In 1999, she was recruited by Applied Visions, a leading software development company focused on creating visual software solutions to solve complex problems. Upon her arrival, the company’s president and CEO, Frank Zinghini, asked her to start a new division at Applied Visions. In 2000, Dr. D’Amico launched a unit focused on products and services for improving the situational awareness of information, which she named Secure Decisions. “I named it that with the thought in mind that I wanted to steer this division in the direction of enhancing human decisions,” says Dr. D’Amico, whose goal as director of Secure Decisions is to equip people to make better decisions in the cyber world.

“People responsible for defending networks are bombarded with information. Firewalls, intrusion detection systems, antivirus and network management systems are sending all kinds of information they have to sift through,” she says. “Situational awareness is all about human decision making…deciding, of all of the things that are lighting up, which are most important to deal with?”

“There’s a whole psychological literature on situational awareness. In order to attain it, you have to perceive what’s going on, comprehend its importance, and project into the future what’s going to happen next,” says Dr. D’Amico, who has taken this literature and applied it to cyber defense.

Her specialty is visualizing network activity. After studying how people who defend networks make decisions, she models the decision process and creates ways to improve their situational awareness with visualization. “We take a very complex situation involving millions of computer network events, which can’t be directly seen or touched, and we make it visual so people can understand it through a picture,” she says.

Dr. D’Amico, who crafted the Secure Decisions business strategy and growth, has served as principal investigator on numerous successful research efforts funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), United States Air Force, intelligence community, and the Department of Homeland Security. Secure Decisions has been nominated two years in a row by DARPA for best Small Business Innovative Research Project of the Year for its work performed on the visualization of information assurance data.

 
 
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