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Muath Alkhalaf: A Winner Despite Hardship

In July 17, 2015, Saudi Muath Alkhalaf received a message informing him that he had won the ACM SIGSOFT 2015 Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award. The award is considered to be the most prestigious for a doctoral dissertation in Software Engineering. Dr. Muath’s dissertation, titled: “Automatic Detection and Repair of Input Validation and Sanitization Bugs”, introduced new techniques to detect and repair bugs and vulnerabilities automatically within input validation and sanitization code in web applications.

Dr. Muath happily shared the good news with his family, friends, and the virtual community on twitter, specifically thanking God, Parents and Prof. Tevfik Bultan, his Ph.D. advisor. He also shared his experience, being a Ph.D. student and a patient of a terminal illness, in a series of thirty-three tweets.

The symptoms started to appear around the end of December 2012, before starting his PhD dissertation. After asking his advisor for permission, Dr. Muath stopped going to university to look after his health. After several visits to hospitals and several doctors, he was diagnosed with muscle stiffness and nerve hyperexcitability. Four months into regular physiotherapy sessions, Dr. Muath and his wife had to make a tough decision; either stay in California for Ph.D. or go back home with Muath’s Master’s degree. They decided to stay.

 

He agreed with his advisor to work mostly from home, where he built an affordable station to help him do his work. Despite all the hardship, Dr. Muath found two positive consequences of his illness: First is increased productivity because of reduced social life and elimination of distractions. Second is building confidence regarding his decisions, since he could not spend a lot of time around his advisor.

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Through his tweets, Alkhalaf expressed gratitude toward his wife, Banan, who had been “both a mother and a father to their children”, and to Julia Bryson and Vince Newman, for their medical care and for “making it possible for him to get back on his feet again”.

You can watch Muath Alkhalaf’s Ph.D. defense here.

 

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