A journey from the Ibn Sina School to Graduate School at U-M

The School helps to prepare undergraduate students in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for successful careers in computer science research.

photo of group of students Enlarge
Sherin Hazboun (left) and Prof. Karem Sakallah with students and faculty from Ibn Sina School in 2012

Sherin Hazboun has had many obstacles in her life, but that has not deterred her from moving aboard to pursue her degree in computer science. She was in the first cohort of students that Prof. Karem Sakallah taught at the Ibn Sina School for Computer Science, an institution in Palestine that was launched in 2012. Since then he has been her mentor throughout her academic career, leading her to the University of Michigan, where she is currently pursing her master’s degree in CSE.

Hazboun completed her bachelor’s degree at Bethlehem University in Palestine, but her degree in Computer Information Systems did not come easy.  Her family struggled financially and Sherin did not want school to be another financial burden. She decided to work several jobs including being a translator, a tutor, and a hotel receptionist to offset the cost of school. She would at times work two jobs at once, which would require her to go to class, go straight to work, and go home late at night to then complete her homework. Even in the face of adversity, she was able to see the bright side of her situation. She says, “After 5 years of experience in the work area, I overcame many obstacles and gained self-confidence and independence. I learned responsibility and how to handle pressure at a young age.”

The Ibn Sina School was created by UCLA’s Prof. Adnan Darwiche in 2012, and it was a new initiative that aimed to prepare undergraduate students in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for successful careers in computer science research. Prof. Michael Wellman is currently on the advisory board and Prof. Sakallah is an instructor at the school. The students in the program were the top 20 students selected from about 140 applicants from eight West Bank universities. While attending the summer school, Hazboun participated in a comprehensive study of the foundations of computer science in a number of intensive sessions.

“For the first time in my life, I knew what research was all about and I’ve actually developed an interest in this area. The whole experience made me consider doing research as a future job and encouraged me to seek higher education in one of the top universities out there,” says Hazboun. At the summer school, she was taught by Prof. Sakallah and from there he was able to guide her to her next endeavor at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI).

The QCRI is a national research institute that helps to build Qatar’s innovation and technology sectors. Prof. Sakallah took a leave of absence from CSE in 2014 to help shape the development of the institute. While at QCRI, he decided to hire Hazboun as an intern and mentor her from January to June 2015. During her time there, she worked on a project called the XSSCatcher, which proposes a new approach for modeling and analyzing reflected XSS vulnerabilities in PHP programs.

She states, “The approach is novel in that it transforms the problem of detecting the existence of an XSS vulnerability to that of determining if the output of a sequential logic circuit can be 0 under some primary input combination. This allows existing bit-level tools that are routinely used in the verification of complex sequential hardware to be readily applicable in this new domain. Our initial experiments with the XSSCatcher prototype have confirmed the viability of this approach and its promise to handle other forms of XSS vulnerabilities as well as other types of injection vulnerabilities such as SQL injection.” The internship allowed her to learn new computer science concepts, as well as learn how to write good technical papers, which is necessary when submitting papers to relevant conferences.

Currently, Hazboun is pursuing her master’s degree in computer science with a specialization in software engineering at U-M. She is a graduate student research assistant, and this position allows her to continue to work on her XSSCatcher project and continue her mentorship with Prof. Sakallah.

Hazboun attributes many of her accomplishments to Prof. Karem Sakallah. “Karem has been my mentor since the very beginning. He was the one that motivated me throughout my journey so far. Basically, Karem was one of the instructors of Ibn Sina School that was offered to help students to seek higher education and I was the first one to take this chance. He has absolutely been there for me with each and every step I took; he gave me helpful advice, taught me new things whether academic or life lessons, and helped me get the internship in Qatar and get the acceptance from University of Michigan. I feel very grateful to him, he will always be my inspiration!”

After Sherin Hazboun graduates, she hopes to stay a couple more years in the United States while working at a job in her field of study, and she is willing to embrace whatever opportunity that may come forth. Her ultimate goal is to work and gain experience, and continue to help her family in Palestine.