Two UM-Dearborn students awarded prestigious Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship

May 15, 2023

Nada Lachtar and Dania Ammar are the first UM-Dearborn doctoral students to be recognized with the competitive fellowship from one of the country’s premier graduate schools.

A colorful graphic featuring headshots of students Dania Ammar and Nada Lachtar
Nada Lachtar (left) and Dania Ammar were recently awarded the Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship.

Back in 2019, the four doctoral programs in UM-Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Computer Science kicked off a formal partnership with the Rackham Graduate School at UM-Ann Arbor. The Rackham affiliation did more than just add some additional cachet. Brahim Medjahed, CECS Assistant Dean and our campus liaison with the Rackham Graduate School, says it’s helped us strengthen those Ph.D. programs in fundamental ways, including adding evidence-based strategies for effective mentoring and a curated lineup of professional development opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, it’s now a standard requirement that all doctoral students be fully funded with a graduate assistantship — a feature that’s designed to help students finish their degrees as quickly as possible, while their research and dissertation work is still relevant. 

Graduate assistantships, which require doctoral students to have campus employment duties such as teaching courses, are a key part of making doctoral programs affordable. But teaching classes while conducting research, taking doctoral courses and working on a dissertation can obviously be a lot to handle. One thing that can be a big help: the Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship, a competitive program that provides a $36,084 stipend, plus doctoral candidacy tuition and fees, for especially promising doctoral students in their final year. This means they can forgo their regular instructional responsibilities and focus solely on their research and dissertation. “That last year is so crucial,” Medjahed says. “It’s when students start publishing research results, finish their dissertations and start looking for jobs. So the fellowship puts students in a much stronger position to launch their careers. And it’s also obviously a great thing for a resume because it’s a highly competitive and prestigious fellowship.”

The Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship is traditionally awarded to around 100 doctoral students on the Ann Arbor campus. But this year, for the first time, two students from CECS’s doctoral programs were named to the list of fellows. Look at their work and it’s easy to see why Computer and Information Science student Nada Lachtar and Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering student Dania Ammar were given the nod. Both are working on high profile problems: Lachtar is developing broadly applicable, novel solutions to ransomware attacks, while Ammar is designing human-machine interfaces that will help pedestrians interact safely with autonomous vehicles. As doctoral students, both have published in high quality journals and presented at top conferences. And even with their busy schedules, both have found time to serve on university committees and mentor UM-Dearborn students coming up behind them. 

Lachtar says she first developed an interest in ransomware when she was an undergraduate student in 2016, the year ransomware blossomed from a niche attack strategy to a major cybersecurity threat.  At the time, Lachtar was looking into graduate programs and ended up connecting with UM-Dearborn Assistant Professor Anys Bacha, who was also working in this area. Over the past five years, they’ve tackled a broad range of ransomware related issues. One of Lachtar’s earliest projects was a machine learning threat detection system that was 99% effective at recognizing malware. Later, she developed operating system-level defenses that were capable of shutting down attacks and limiting damage. She’s also worked on strategies for detecting adversarial machine learning, a type of attack that actually uses machine learning to sidestep machine learning-based defenses. 

Ammar’s research is exploring one of the more fascinating emerging challenges related to autonomous vehicles: How will pedestrians safely interact with cars when humans aren’t doing the driving? Ammar says we typically rely on visual signals, like eye contact, to negotiate who has the right of way, and absent a human driver, cars will presumably have to have some way of declaring their intentions. For example, through her research, Ammar has discovered that pedestrians tend to favor technologies that closely mimic their interactions with human drivers — say, a visual or auditory message, delivered from the car, that says “I see you! It’s safe to cross.” Ammar’s dissertation work is focused on resolving many such design complexities, including the incredibly murky territory of “trust calibration.” Essentially, she says, keeping traffic moving efficiently and keeping humans safe rely on pedestrians being both trusting of vehicles and sufficiently wary so they can adapt to surprises. Designing systems that encourage this “sweet spot” behavior will be just as key to making autonomous vehicles a reality as the core technology now being developed by automakers. 

As someone who’s been key to building CECS’s doctoral education culture, including the affiliation with Rackham, Medjahed is proud to see students from the UM-Dearborn campus earning this recognition. “Both Dania and Nada are extremely deserving,” he says. “You look at what they’ve accomplished — the research maturity, the level of productivity and their engagement with the university — they’re everything you’d expect from the top Ph.D. candidates in top Ph.D. programs around the country.” Mike Solomon, dean of the Rackham Graduate School, also sees it as an important milestone for the Dearborn campus. “The Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship is an important part of our school’s rich legacy,” Solomon says. “That legacy has been enhanced by the addition of Ph.D. programs at UM-Dearborn, which are now fully integrated with the graduate school. I am therefore very pleased to welcome this inaugural cohort of Dearborn Rackham Predoctoral Fellows, and I thank the many staff and faculty on both the Dearborn and Ann Arbor campuses who have worked to make this opportunity possible.”


Story by Lou Blouin