Victory signals new focus on standardization education

Julia Suozzi was 350 miles from Charlottesville and working as a programmer in New York City when she learned that she was the national winner of the American National Standards Institute’s seventh annual student paper competition.

The contest raises awareness about the “strategic importance of standards and conformance among U.S. undergraduate and graduate students,” according to a press release on the institute’s website. The award came with a $2,000 check and recognition at the organization’s annual awards dinner Oct. 17 in Washington, D.C.

Suozzi graduated in May with a degree in computer engineering from the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science. Her first-place essay, “When Mundane Objects Become Smart: Challenges of Standardizing the Internet of Things,” is adapted from her undergraduate thesis, written during the spring 2018 semester as a requirement for STS 4600: Engineering Responsibility and Ethics in a Global Context.

Julia Suozzi and ANSI COO Fran Schrotter at awards dinner

Fran Schrotter, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the American National Standards Institute, congratulates Julia Suozzi (computer engineering ’18) during the institute’s awards dinner. Suozzi won ANSI’s 2018 student paper competition.

Assistant professor of science, technology and society Sharon Tsai-hsuan Ku taught the course. She encouraged Suozzi to enter the competition, recognizing that the 2018 theme, “Standards in a Changing World,” was a good fit with her thesis topic.

Suozzi’s work examines a new class of products — everyday items from toys to kitchen appliances that are now “smart” devices — and the need for standardization to help protect consumers from the cyber-security risks that come with internet connectivity. In a global marketplace with more than 300 “standards-developing organizations” concerned with the Internet of Things alone, finding consensus on voluntary industry standards is a huge task.

The problems start with what to standardize, Suozzi found, such as device labeling, privacy safeguards and mechanisms for identifying and fixing vulnerabilities. And when is it appropriate to expect compliance in a still-emerging market? Standards-making organizations exist in academia, government and industry, Suozzi notes. Their interests and the “cultures” within which they operate can be at odds with one another.

She took a sociological approach to address these challenges to creating standards and to offer potential solutions. Suozzi conducted interviews by phone and email with key stakeholders in the standards-making arena, including representatives from the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The gumption of those interviews impressed her professor, as did Suozzi’s findings.

“Julia reached out to standardization bodies nationally and internationally,” Ku said, noting the professional value of the connections she made. “And, the valuable but challenging part of her thesis is it’s a very new, timely topic. It demands lots of real-time observations and interviews with multiple stakeholders from government and industry.”

Suozzi admitted it took a little nerve, but it was worth it.

“They’re really intelligent, busy people,” she said, noting the were nonetheless willing to share their experiences. “Speaking to the actual members [of international standardization bodies], that’s where I got the most useful information and diverse perspectives different from the academic viewpoint.”

When she received the award notification letter from ANSI, her first thought was of Ku.

“I was so excited to tell Professor Ku the news,” Suozzi said. “Since starting at UVA, she has put a lot of time and energy into raising awareness about standards and getting standards education formally incorporated into the engineering curriculum.

Saringi presenting at GEM

"Standardization is a concrete bridge between engineering and society. To address societal needs, we need to pay more attention to it. Those who make rules not only control the future market, but also take on leadership and responsibility for future technology and humanity."

Sharon Tsai-hsuan Ku, assistant professor of science, technology and society

“I would like to highlight how grateful I am for her help with both my thesis and the paper for the competition. She gave me her time, her guidance and her support throughout the entire semester and writing process. When I say ‘I couldn't have done it without her,’ I truly mean that.”

Ku arrived at UVA Engineering in August 2017 by way of Drexel University, and the National Institutes of Health. She was heavily involved in international standardization for nanomedicine, an area where she witnessed a big disconnect between the knowledge produced in academia and how industry and government view and use that knowledge, along with lack of communication between academic scientists, policymakers and the private sector.

Upon entering academia, Ku was astonished at the lack of formal standards education programs in engineering.

“It’s an important topic for innovators if they are committed to innovation, commercialization and societal impact,” Ku said. “Innovation needs standards to show interoperability, credibility and accountability. The real challenge is, how do we reach consensus, given the scientific uncertainties of new technologies, along with various interests and diverse socio-political conditions? Who has the right to make and authorize rules? And what rules?

“Standardization of emerging technologies is an international race; this is why European Union countries and rising economies like China are taking rigorous standardization actions in IoT, autonomous vehicles, etc.”

Ku is pursuing several initiatives related to standards education at UVA, including hosting an annual international standards workshop, offering a U.S.-China “global classroom” through a UVA-Tsinghua University partnership, and developing an interdisciplinary curriculum focused on “standard aligned design” for sustainable smart cities. Regarding the latter, she and her colleague Sean Ferguson in the Department of Engineering and Society and Jonathan Goodall, an associate professor of civil engineering and director of UVA Engineering’s Link Lab, have received a grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop the new course sequence.

Suozzi’s victory may be a sign of more to come. Ku and Ferguson also coached a team of four undergraduates who competed in ANSI’s third annual Standards Negotiation Competition on Oct. 15. An announcement of the competition’s outcome is forthcoming.

Behind her efforts is Ku’s belief that standardization carries implications for real-world interactions between technology, economies, laws, ethics, different cultures and global politics.

“Standardization is a concrete bridge between engineering and society. To address societal needs, we need to pay more attention to it,” she said. “Those who make rules not only control the future market, but also take on leadership and responsibility for future technology and humanity.”