Servant Leadership

| November 11, 2019

U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and third-year Ph.D. student Ashok Deb is training to combat deep fakes and cyber threats while giving back to elementary school students

Ph.D. student and active duty U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Ashok Deb is training to defend the nation from cybersecurity threats and deep fakes. Photo courtesy of Ashok Deb

Ashok Deb, a Ph.D. candidate at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has been in the U.S. Army for over 18 years, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe and Central America.

Born in Germany, but raised in Tennessee, Deb earned his Bachelor of Science in mathematics in 2001 from the United States Military Academy at West Point and his Master of Science in operations research from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In the Army, he optimized computers and communications devices to help soldiers communicate better in the field. But for the last three years, Deb has called USC Viterbi home. He is currently part of the USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI)’s Machine Intelligence and Data Science (MINDS) group as a third-year Ph.D. student, working under the guidance of Professor Emilio Ferrara. Deb’s current projects explore the intersection of computer science and social science, such as the spread of fake news and misinformation on social media during election cycles.

We sat down with Deb on Veterans Day to discuss his career as a soldier-scholar and his passion for servant leadership.

Tell us a story about your time serving that solidified your desire to make the Army a career.

When I was a junior officer stationed in Germany, I was fortunate to be in Company Command. During my time, we received a new soldier, who, upon me asking her story, she stated that she was born and raised in Cuba along with her twin sister; and when she was 11 years old, her family made the trek and landed “feet dry” in Miami. Upon graduating from high school, both her and her sister joined the U.S. Army. While in my unit, she had an overwhelming personal issue to deal with that she told to her first line supervisor, who asked if she could share it with me. We worked with her until the situation was resolved. That was the day I wanted to make the Army a career, because of the impact I could have on a soldier’s personal life.

Ashok Deb gives a lecture to elementary school students participating in USC’s REACH program about fake news on the internet and cybersecurity risks. Photo courtesy of Ashok Deb.

What influenced you to become an engineer?

My father was an engineer, and I got the curiosity bug as a young child playing with Legos and visiting Radio Shack. I was always a big fan of computers, and I was fortunate enough to attend a summer program at my elementary school in 1986 to learn how to program on an Apple IIe using BASIC — saving on a double-sided, double density 5.25 inch floppy disk. My academic journey has come full circle. At West Point, I wanted to major in computer science, but my CS prof told me to major in math. So that is what I did. After commissioning in the Army as a Signal Corps officer in our IT branch, I worked a variety of assignments that presented me with a slew of engineering challenges. Now, the Army is sending me back to school to work toward a doctorate in computer science, and my thesis is on “Influence Maximization on Social Media Networks with Stubborn/Gullible Agents in a Game Theoretic Setting.” Coming full circle, one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had at USC so far is being invited to speak to K-12 students about cybersecurity risks, fake news and social bots.

From a Spring 2018 issue of USC Kids News written by K-12 students attending USC summer programs.

You talk a lot about servant leadership, explain this concept as you see it.

It’s about inspiring and motivating, not just by giving orders, but by serving others.  It’s about being helpful, sharing the load and eating after everyone has eaten.

What do you enjoy most about your USC Viterbi program?

I have met and worked with the most supportive people. Viterbi and USC are the most military friendly organizations I know. The most enjoyable aspect—feeling like Viterbi is my family.

What does the next chapter of your life look like and where will the journey take you?

Wherever the Army needs me to go next, that’s where I will go. I just hope the weather isn’t too bad.

What does Veterans Day personally mean to you?

All gave some and some gave all.

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