In the corridors of academic pursuit, where curiosity meets determination, lies the inspiring journey of Ranya Sharma, a second-year undergraduate in the University of Chicago’s Department of Computer Science. With a passion for exploring the nexus of technology and public policy, Ranya’s trajectory exemplifies the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and purpose-driven research.

From her early years in high school, Ranya’s interests gravitated towards both computer science and public policy, nurtured by her active participation in debate. Recognizing the potential for these dual passions to converge, she embarked on a journey to explore the intersection of both fields—a path that ultimately led her to UChicago.

During her junior year of high school, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic provided Ranya with an opportunity for introspection and exploration. With extracurricular activities on hold, she delved into researching potential areas of interest, eventually reaching out to Neubauer Professor of Computer Science, Nick Feamster, renowned for his work at this particular intersection.

“We met over zoom and kind of just hit it off,” said Sharma. “He asked me if there was anything that I’d be interested working with him on, and I predicted that maybe I would be doing data entry or something like that. As a high school student, I didn’t really know what to expect. But he told me all about the different projects that they were working on in the Network Operations and Internet Security (NOISE) Lab, and encrypted DNS was one of the most prominent ones back then. So I just started reading papers on encrypted DNS and created my own research project.”

Ranya’s involvement in the DNS project delved into the intricacies of encrypted DNS interfaces, unraveling the vital link between user comprehension and online security in an increasingly digitized world. She unearthed crucial insights into user perceptions and behaviors regarding encrypted DNS interfaces, shedding light on the urgent need for clearer communication and enhanced user awareness in safeguarding online privacy. She eventually became the lead researcher on a research paper that appeared at the USENIX Security Symposium, the premier conference in computer security.

“The opportunity to work with intrepid, articulate, and creative students like Ranya is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work. It has been so exciting and fulfilling for me, as a mentor, to see her grow from being completely new to the topic area of networking to leading such an important project at the forefront of Internet technology and policy,” said Ranya’s research advisor, Nick Feamster.

The exploration didn’t stop there. Thus began her journey into the world of research, where she found a niche in projects spanning not only encrypted DNS, but also the digital divide and Wi-Fi bottlenecks.

Ranya’s involvement in the digital divide project unearthed disparities in internet performance across different neighborhoods, prompting further investigation into the factors contributing to these discrepancies.

“It was interesting because I don’t think it was as apparent as we thought it would be,” Ranya notes, acknowledging the complexity of the issue. “Dr. Marwell, Professor Feamster, and myself were all shocked that it wasn’t just some areas all red and some areas all green. There was definitely more we needed to dig into.”

Similarly, the Wi-Fi bottlenecks project revealed insights into the challenges faced by users in accessing Internet speeds commensurate with their service providers’ promises.

“It was a project that came about from analyzing data and realizing that Wi-Fi speeds were lower than expected,” Ranya explains, highlighting the serendipitous nature of discovery in research.

Beyond her research endeavors, Ranya reflects on the invaluable mentorship she has received from Professor Feamster and the supportive environment of his lab.

“Nick’s been a great mentor, always understanding of my academic commitments,” she says, emphasizing the significance of guidance in her academic journey. “He is constantly encouraging me and has helped me navigate both my academic and professional pursuits. The research topics are what initially captured my interest, but his invaluable mentorship is truly what made me stay.”

Looking ahead, Ranya remains committed to her pursuit of knowledge and impact, with upcoming submissions to prestigious conferences serving as milestones in her academic journey. With a blend of passion, resilience, and intellectual curiosity, she continues to chart a course towards bridging the gap between technology and public policy, driven by a vision of creating a more inclusive and secure digital landscape for all.

As Ranya Sharma’s journey unfolds, her story serves as a beacon of inspiration for aspiring scholars and changemakers, reminding us all of the transformative potential that lies at the intersection of passion and purpose.

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