Professor Máire O'Neill

Professor Máire O'Neill

Professor Máire O’Neill, Director of UK Research Institute in Secure Hardware and Embedded Systems (RISE) at Queen’s University Belfast, is leading research into cyber security.

My dad sparked my interest in engineering. When I was young, he built a hydroelectric scheme on the river running past our house – it was one of the first small-scale schemes in Ireland. He was a teacher, not an engineer, so he consulted lots of people to find out how it might be done. His success inspired me in terms of feat, creativity and perseverance. It was quite remarkable. We had our own electricity for the whole house and people would come from across Ireland to see how the hydroelectric scheme was built.

Being able to see your research from initial idea all the way through to design and implementation is something that really excites me. As a PhD student I worked with Queen’s University spin-out company Amphion Semiconductor, and some of my first designs ended up being commercialised and used in set-top boxes. Since then, although I am involved in blue-skies research, I really enjoy the applied work; solving a problem that will have an impact on society is very rewarding.

In the future, quantum computers will offer many advantages over today’s classical computers, but also pose a serious threat for cyber security. As quantum computers may operate at exponential speed up over today’s classical computers, they would break the underlying mathematics used in security systems. Experts believe we are only a decade or two away from quantum computers, and a lot of funding is being put into this area by tech companies, such as Google. We’re also seeing government organisations looking at ways to mitigate quantum attacks. The project I’m currently working on, funded by Innovate UK, is a collaboration between academics and industry. The underlying mathematics of post-quantum cryptography is very complex, so we’re looking at ways to create security techniques that are both resistant to quantum attacks and also able to run at practical speeds on today’s small devices.

Engineering may still be a male-dominated field, but women are leading the way in cyber security. Three of the four UK research institutes in cyber security that are funded by the National Cyber Security Centre and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council are led by female academics – I am Director of the research institute in hardware security – but we absolutely still need to encourage more women into this field. The National Cyber Security Centre runs excellent programmes to encourage young girls to study GCSE computer science at school with a view to a future career in cyber security. Working with cutting edge technology and trying to stay one step ahead of cyber attacks is such exciting work. I think girls in particular want to see how their work will make a difference – and we have the opportunity to solve problems that affect everyday lives.

I’m proud of being the first female professor in electrical and electronic at Queen’s University Belfast at the age of 32 – but I would say my greatest achievement is juggling the demanding job of an academic with raising three young children. Of course, we have the same battles about screen time as any parents, but we try to educate them about technology rather than banning it. I think it’s important children understand the potential dangers and are able to talk to someone if something online is making them feel uncomfortable.