Putting Humanity in IoT

Salma Elmalaki, electrical engineering and computer science assistant professor of teaching, seeks to design computer systems that are fair, socially accessible and privacy aware to inspire future generations

April 29, 2021 - The burgeoning field of designing systems for smart homes, smart cars and smart phones – the internet of things (IoT) – is exciting. But it also creates difficult challenges for respecting privacy, providing accessibility and adaptability, and fairness. Salma Elmalaki, UC Irvine electrical engineering and computer science assistant professor of teaching, works to ensure our humanity doesn’t get lost in IoT.

“My research focuses on designing systematic approaches and building machine-learning models to learn how to adapt to humans, how we can put humans in the loop, and how we can design the algorithms to do that, while addressing many privacy and fairness concerns – not for a specific application but in general,” she says. “After I develop the ideas, algorithms and models, I apply them to different applications to prove the concept. I do applications on driver-assisted systems, smart homes, mobile computing and smart cities. All these applications serve the big vision of a more inclusive and fair smart society.

“It’s quite a challenge, and I like that,” she adds. “There’s a lot of future in there, and I would like to be part of it.”

Elmalaki explains her research further in her first single-author paper, “FaiR-IoT: Fairness-Aware Human-in-the-Loop Reinforcement Learning for Harnessing Human Variability in Personalized IoT,” published by the 2021 Cyber-Physical Systems and Internet of Things Week conference held May 18-21, 2021. The annual event combines five top conferences in the field, and this year, the paper acceptance rate was 25 percent. Elmalaki’s was the only single-author paper published.

Before joining the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in October 2019, Elmalaki earned a bachelor’s in computer and systems engineering from Ain Shams University in Egypt and a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from UCLA, where she was affiliated with the Networked and Embedded Systems Lab. Elmalaki also worked as a computational methods engineer for the Janelia Research Campus at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and spent three years as a research and development engineer in the embedded systems industry.

Elmalaki received the Microsoft Research Fellowship (2016-2018) and the Best Paper and the Best Community Paper awards from the International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking (MobiCom) in 2015. She was selected as a Grace Hopper Scholar to celebrate women in computing in 2016. 

"Salma combines the best of all worlds: She is a top researcher, a committed teacher and a great citizen in the department, leading curriculum innovation and serving in a range of roles,” says Athina Markopoulou, professor, Chancellor’s Fellow and chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I don't know how she manages it all: She is a doer, has tons of positive energy and holds herself to high standards. We are lucky to have her!"

The key to Elmalaki’s achievements and positive energy comes from within. During the first two years of doctoral studies, Elmalaki struggled with the program’s rigors and balancing her home life, so she paused for a self-assessment. “When I realized that I don’t have to compare myself to people who don’t have the same situation or the same priorities, I was at such peace,” she recalls. “When I realized that I don’t have to be the best at everything, my progress doubled. I was able to focus, I was grounded and I was enjoying what I was doing. I didn’t have to race anyone. My Ph.D. went on a completely different track. I got best paper awards, published in top-tier conferences and got fellowships because I stopped comparing myself to others.”

She loved the UC system where she collaborated with other researchers from UCI and UCSD while at UCLA. The assistant professor of teaching position drew Elmalaki to UCI. “I have passion for both research and pedagogy,” she says. “What attracted me to UCI was this position, which combines teaching and research. It’s not just focusing on research and maybe teaching is a second priority. Both are of very high importance. It was something that I didn’t find at other universities.”

Elmalaki is one of eight professors of teaching in the Samueli School of Engineering. UCI has a total of 102 professors of teaching, also called teaching professors at other UC campuses.

Although the regular course load is three classes per academic year, Elmalaki has been teaching six. What inspires her to teach double the regular workload? “I love teaching,” she says. “I really enjoy it.”

Elmalaki tailors her teaching approach to each class and her students’ educational levels. For graduate classes, she tries to stimulate their critical thinking by giving them different topics and encouraging them to learn outside a particular curriculum. However, many undergraduates come directly from high school, and she works to make the transition smoother. “These are my hardest classes,” she says. “I put a lot of effort into them and try different techniques. I believe in hands-on tools. Unless you actually try something yourself and are challenged by it, then it’s hard to learn it, especially with engineering.”

Adding COVID-19 to the mix, Elmalaki admits, “It was a really tough time to be honest. It took a toll on all of us.”

But throughout the pandemic, racial injustices and other issues that were affecting her students, Elmalaki strove to provide reassurance and comfort. “I tried to understand how they were feeling. As an instructor, it’s not only my job to teach. I feel responsible. If I’m stressed one percent, they’re stressed 100 percent. I could not change a lot of things, but at least they felt that I cared.”

Ultimately, Elmalaki says, “I hope students leave my classes passionate about engineering.

“I’m a woman, I’m an immigrant, I didn’t get my bachelor’s degree from here, I have a family, I have kids and I was able to be a professor and do research. I had a lot of hiccups in the process, but also, I received a lot of support from my family and friends. If I can be a model to others that I can be a professor and that engineering is not a scary field to enter, even if you’re a minority, then I’ve done my job.”

– Tonya Becerra

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