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Obama honors Texas State professor with prestigious award

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Dr. Oleg Komogortsev, Texas State professor, poses for a photo Feb. 7 in the Comal building. Former president Obama recently awarded Dr. Komogortzev for his research in cyber security.
Photo by: Rebecca Mendoza | Staff Photographer

A Texas State faculty member’s invention is being recognized as the possible silver bullet to solving the nation’s troublesome cyber attacks, intrusions and hacks.

On Jan. 9, former President Obama named 102 scientists and researchers as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. Oleg Komogortsev, associate professor of computer science, was one of the 19 scientists nominated for the National Science Foundation’s section of awards.

The awards are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the president’s executive office. PECASE is the highest honor scientists and engineers can receive in the early stages of their careers.

“Representatives from the Office of Science and Technology contacted me first,” Komogortsev said. “Two hours later, I was notified that I was awarded the PECASE.”

For the last 17 years, Komogortsev has focused on eye movement and biometrics to prevent identity theft and improve health assessments.

“Biometrics is very important today in the modern world,” Komogortsev said. “It is important because we have to remember passwords for everything. The goal of biometrics is to basically stand in front of a computing system and have the system recognize who you are.”

A person can be identified by their fingerprints or irises in their eyes, but Komogortsev said it is very easy to fake either one of those. So, he has invented methods to assess the identity of a person through liveness detection.

“A fingerprint or iris is easily spoofed by image,” Komogortsev said. “What we do is create a liveness detection capability to rule out imposters.”

Liveness detection methods have “the ability to look beyond the surface of the skin and discriminate between the features of live skin and copies of those features in a fraction of a second,” according to a biometrics blog.

This aspect of Komogortsev’s invention plays a unique role in cyber security because the system devises the muscular structure of the eye and brain structure.

“We made our technology with existing iris recognitions devices,” Komogortsev said. “This will not only recognize a person, but tell if the person is tired, fatigued (or) sick.”

Undergraduate, graduate, minority and disadvantage students have worked on the project alongside Komogortsev throughout the years. He wants students to understand that they can positively change the lives of others.

“I collected all the data for the project after I applied for the position through the computer science department,” said Sarah Vazquez, computer science senior. “We went to a high school and let all of the students use the technology to play games with their eyes. The program allows the user to pop balloons of a certain color with specific eye movements. He definitely deserves the PECASE.”

Vazquez commended Komogortsev for his invention and humble attitude toward the project.

Former President Barack Obama said the outstanding scientists and engineers awarded the PECASE are working to keep the United States on the cutting edge. In addition, he said federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand knowledge of the world and contribute to the economy.

Lee Friedman, postdoctoral research associate, said he congratulates Komogortsev on the breakthrough in security and is happy to have played a key role in the success.

“I brought the statistical thinking into the program—a statistically based way to rate how stable the biometric eye movement is,” Friedman said. “I’m an eye movement expert, and I created a new movement scoring program. We ended up with a much better performance after this, and his reaction was priceless. He deserves this honor.”

National Science Foundation Director France Córdova said recipients of the PECASE have demonstrated talented research as dedicated mentors, role models and teachers. The organization is pleased to recognize them and looks forward to seeing their future discoveries.

“The award is big deal if you look at the other people who received it,” Komogortsev said. “It can be used as encouragement for other faculty to continue to do their excellent work with students. I was one of just 19 nominated by the NSF, and the other recipients come from top ranked schools. This means that Texas State can do research and gain achievements of great magnitude.”

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