Class of 2019: Graduate student Samantha Fenn combines laboratory background with public policy studies in cyberbiosecurity
December 17, 2019
As recent headlines show, access to personal medical records is a big deal – whether calculated in profits for private firms or in privacy and safety risks to vulnerable individuals. A federal inquiry into Google’s Project Nightingale, a health information collection system, is a good example of rising concerns on this subject.
These concerns are no surprise to Samantha Fenn, a Hokie alumna and current graduate student in the master’s of public administration (M.P.A.) program at the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) campus in Arlington. Fenn, who graduates this December, works on the frontier of cyberbiosecurity and knows that even seemingly innocuous information can contain our most intimate physical attributes, down to the genomic level.
However, without the transparency provided by shared data through open biological databases, “science definitely doesn’t happen,” said Fenn. “But too much transparency creates opportunities for danger. Cyberbiosecurity helps prepare us before something catastrophic happens.”
Cyberbiosecurity is an emerging field that combines research in cybersecurity, cyber-physical security, and biosecurity. Its purpose is to understand and defend vulnerable biological and medical data from theft, manipulation, and even weaponization.
As an example of potential risk, Fenn describes how dangerous versions of pathogens like the influenza virus can easily be engineered using publicly accessible information. It’s not difficult to imagine even more serious threats from motivated bad actors.
Originally from Bel Air, Maryland, Fenn graduated from the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus with a degree in biological sciences in 2014. She began the M.P.A. program in 2017 and earned a graduate certificate in homeland security policy this spring. Working on the certificate helped her see how biological data becomes vulnerable currency in the struggle for public safety.
After she earned her bachelor’s degree, Fenn worked in a traditional lab. This role evolved into training warfighters and civilian personnel for military clients on the vanguard of national security.
“It’s a different way to contribute to the scientific community,” said Fenn of the experience. “I wanted to learn how to facilitate conversations between scientists and policymakers and to influence public policy to better safeguard the ‘bioeconomy.’”
Fenn currently works for ATCC, a nonprofit information resource and standards organization in Manassas, Virginia, and the world’s largest and most diverse collection of biological research solutions. ATCC has supplied materials for study and research to the scientific community for almost 100 years. Recently, Fenn coordinated with internal and external partners in the development of the ATCC Genome Portal - a publicly accessible online database that provides researchers with extensive, reliable, high-quality information using cutting-edge next-generation sequencing technology.
According to Adrienne Edisis, assistant professor of public administration for SPIA in Arlington, Fenn represents an especially diverse cohort of master’s students. However, Edisis also believes Fenn’s capacity for leadership is particularly strong.
“Sam brings the distinct view provided by scientific training as a different lens for working on social problems,” Edisis said. “She’s a good example of how someone with a natural science background can use an education in public policy to translate technical knowledge into a direct impact on society.”
Fenn, who has coordinated an internship program for ATCC during the past few summers, enjoys mentoring young scientists. The public management skills she has learned in graduate school are complementary to her science background, particularly its orientation to technical detail.
Although many of her M.P.A. colleagues work for government, Fenn represents an important aspect of public administration as it is evolving in the new century: the concept of shared governance across sectors, where nonprofits and private firms are increasingly doing business with broad societal impact.
The federal government funds most research through agencies like the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the success of any government cyberbiosecurity program relies on the combined assets, resources, and expertise of academic institutions, for-profit businesses, and dedicated non-governmental organizations.
“We need people with hands-on experience working across sectors to help influence and implement science policy,” said Fenn. “And this is especially necessary where funding is located.” Where the funding is, she observed, is where the most integral work is being performed.
Though Fenn’s Virginia Tech experience has been marked by her time at two very different campuses, she highlights the value of the educational opportunities and connections at each location.
“The Blacksburg experience is special for students in a way that’s hard to explain,” said Fenn, who often returns to Blacksburg to mentor young scientists. Yet the Arlington campus has also felt like home to her from the beginning, even when the subject matter of public administration was new and strange.
“My entire path so far has been the result of networking connections I’ve made through Virginia Tech,” she said. “I can’t imagine being at another school.”
— Written by L. Maria Ingram