AI’s strength is that it can think faster than a human can. As cyberthreats become more sophisticated, cybersecurity teams need all hands on deck to protect national security. That means recruiting AI as a teammate.

Melissa Chua, Head Capability Development (Cyber AI), Cybersecurity Programme Centre, Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) discusses how AI is boosting cybersecurity protections in the military. She also shares how tinkering with your mobile phone can ignite a passion in cybersecurity.

Tell us more about your role. How do you protect the digital realm and improve citizens’ lives?

I am currently Head Capability Development (Cyber AI) at DSTA’s Cybersecurity Programme Centre, where I leverage cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) to develop robust cyber capabilities for the Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). In my day to day work, I lead a team to develop cyber solutions to monitor and detect potential threats in the cyberspace. We also develop in-house algorithms and analytics for custom solutions to suit the SAF’s unique requirements.

As a digitalised and highly connected country, Singapore relies heavily on the stability and security of our online connection to the rest of the world. Moreover, the digital realm is not limited by geographical boundaries, and can be susceptible to cyberattacks which are often invisible and becoming increasingly sophisticated. Hence, it is important for cyber defence engineers to harness emerging technologies to develop the best possible defences to protect the SAF’s critical systems.

What sparked your interest in cybersecurity?

When I got my first smartphone, I became interested to learn how to customise the device to my needs and improve its performance. However, through this process, I realised that the personal data in my phone was exposed, and if an amateur like me could do that, then malware and hackers could easily do the same. Thus, I picked up a strong interest in mobile security and spent a lot of time researching on the topic. That was also when the world saw a rise in cybercrime, particularly against large organisations and governments. I followed the news closely, and developed a strong interest in learning how I could contribute to defending Singapore against such attacks.

Cybersecurity is a very challenging domain. It is a very exciting and dynamic field where I have to constantly keep up with evolving threats and to stay abreast with the latest technologies.

What has been the most memorable project of your career?

My most memorable project was the Cyber Security Operations Centre 2.0, a major cybersecurity development that enhances the MINDEF and SAF’s ability to monitor, detect, analyse and respond to cyber incidents.

My team and I conducted extensive testing and deepened our understanding of defence operations and processes so we could design the system to be intuitive and resilient. We also adopted an agile development model so we could fine-tune the system’s features and create new iterations continuously to keep pace with evolving cyber threats.

Image of Melissa Chua, Head Capability Development (Cyber AI), Cybersecurity Programme Centre at DSTA.

What challenges would you like to take on in the next year?

With mobile technology and cybersecurity becoming increasingly important, I look forward to pushing technological boundaries and exploring how AI can be leveraged further to develop new capabilities. One such area is adversarial AI, where we test the limitations of AI algorithms intentionally, and reverse engineer solutions to mitigate them.

I would also like to inspire youths to develop an interest in this field. I strongly believe that cybersecurity matters to every one of us, and is important that future generations are equipped to take up the mantle of ensuring the resilience of our digital defence. I’ve been given the opportunity to share about our exciting work through various outreach programmes such as BrainHack, DSTA’s annual digital learning fest for youths, and also mentored interns who have since become my colleagues! I truly enjoy sharing my experiences with these young minds, and I hope to be able to engage more of them as they remind me to never lose my passion for technology.

Who or what inspired you this year, and why?

The strong innovation culture at DSTA and teamwork of multidisciplinary engineers across various domains never fail to inspire me to deliver my best. I work closely with defence engineers as well as industry and academia, who constantly tap emerging technologies to develop state-of-the-art systems. Their determination and never-say-die attitude spur me to constantly hone my technical expertise so that I can contribute as much as I can.

What advice would you give to women looking to start a career in cybersecurity?

To excel in cybersecurity takes not just passion, but also inquisitiveness and adaptability. You need to stay on top of things beyond cybersecurity – trends, potential threats, new solutions, and even commercial developments. You also need to be proactive and curious to push boundaries and experiment with new technologies, so that you can always anticipate and prepare for what’s next.

Always keep an open mind, and get more exposure to the industry. Take up internships and join hackathons to enrich your learning, as well as gain hands-on experience.

If you could sum up your life motto in one sentence, what would it be?

Never stop pushing yourself because there’s really no limits to what you can achieve.

Images courtesy of DSTA