Beginning fall 2011, John Vincent Monaco, who prefers to be called “Vinnie,” will continue his studies towards both a B.S. in Computer Science and a B.S. in Mathematics, with the support of a full scholarship from the U.S. Department of Defense’s prestigious Information Assurance Scholarship Program (IASP). Vinnie is one of only 18 students nationwide to receive this coveted award this year. When asked about the scholarship, he said that he was both “thrilled and thankful” and glad to see that “hard work pays off.”
IASP awards are given to highly qualified students interested in pursuing fields of study related to information assurance. In addition to covering tuition, fees and books, the scholarship provides a generous stipend, information security internships during school breaks, and full-time employment with the Department of Defense upon graduation. Vinnie plans to use this opportunity to complete his undergraduate studies and continue on for an M.S. in Computer Science at Pace, focusing on the field of artificial intelligence, which he predicts will become increasingly important in improving both individual and information security.
But this is only part of the story.
In writing his recommendation in support of Vinnie’s IASP application, Dr. Allen Stix stated that Vinnie Monaco “is, by far, the best student I have ever had.” This is a stunning statement coming from a faculty member who has been teaching computer science just shy of 30 years. Dr. Stix backs this up with numerous examples of Vinnie’s extraordinary aptitude for computing and mathematics, including mention of just some of the accomplishments in his long string of remarkable achievements during his three years at Pace.
Vinnie began his studies in Spring 2008. Knowing that he wanted to major in computer science, he enrolled in Dr. Stix’s introductory programming course. Dr. Stix initially found Vinnie to be “competent, helpful and friendly” but not necessarily exceptional. That was about to change. In the middle of the term, Vinnie asked Dr. Stix if he had a special project he could work on. Dr. Stix complied by giving him Martin Gardner’s mathematical description of Nim, a game of strategy, but no suggestions about how the product should look or might be implemented. Vinnie returned from spring vacation with a “stunning implementation.” It was a masterpiece, offering levels of play and accepted requests for tactical tips.
From there, Dr. Stix also agreed to oversee a tutorial with Vinnie during the summer, his first summer at Pace, so that he could complete the second course in the introductory programming sequence and be “in sync” with his classmates who had started the previous fall as well as with the fall/spring rotation of advanced classes. Again, Vinnie went above and beyond the scope of the curriculum. He implemented a client-server application that supported chats, encrypted with state of the art techniques; he implemented algorithms that are not presented until the courses in data structures; and he implemented a sophisticated steganography system for hiding text in images—the same system that Dr. Stix had assigned to his software engineering seminar, an advanced course generally comprised of upper level students, the previous semester.
With encouragement from Dr. Stix, Vinnie travelled to the New York City campus the following fall to take classes, including one in artificial intelligence (AI) with Dr. Paul Benjamin. Vinnie soon realized that he had an unusual affinity for the subject matter and became involved in the Seidenberg School’s Robotics Lab where he has actively researched new methods in computer vision and implemented a system to process and model 3D video data in real time that has practical applications for robotics, surveillance and space exploration. This research led to the publication of two papers in highly regarded conference journals that credited him with co-authorship. Dr. Benjamin, also impressed with this remarkable young man says: “Vinnie’s research has clearly been at the level of an outstanding graduate student, which makes him a truly extraordinary undergraduate student. He demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of both theoretical and practical topics, and his enthusiasm and curiosity are boundless.
Dr. Stix also introduced Vinnie to Dr. Kathryn Winsted of the Lubin School of Business who was interested in updating a simulation game for teaching business strategy that could be used in a computer classroom. Initially, Dr. Winsted agreed to serve as a “client” for Dr. Stix’s software engineering students, giving them the opportunity to develop a “real world” product in return for the delivery of the system she wanted. Now aware of Vinnie’s gift for simplifying complex problems and writing elegant code, Dr. Stix asked him to take a stab at building a Java-based prototype in advance of the full project to be addressed by his class in the fall. What he received in three week’s time was “no prototype” but rather “a finished product, something unexpectedly fine . . . a masterpiece of usability, rooted in an elegant design and excellent coding.”
Subsequently, Dr. Winsted received a Verizon Thinkfinity Grant that supported the conversion of her simulation game to a Web-based format. Much to Dr. Winsted’s satisfaction, Vinnie then reprogrammed the original system and added considerable enhancements. Dr. Winsted’s series of simulation games, thanks to Vinnie’s skillful work, has been integrated into the University’s undergraduate business curriculum.
Since his first extraordinary year at Pace, Vinnie has gone on to pursue additional research in genetic algorithms, cryptography and cryptanalysis, and biometrics. In 2010, he presented a paper on his cryptography research at the Eastern Colleges Science Conference. He also successfully led a team of five graduate students, under the tutelage of Dr. Charles Tappert, in designing and implementing a keystroke biometric system for identifying and authenticating a user based on keystroke analysis. Of Vinnie’s abilities, Dr. Tappert who is a 25-year veteran of IBM Research, writes in a second IASP recommendation:
“Vinnie is one of those rare individuals who can code almost anything and in almost any computer language. In his courses he soaks up information and has learned a great deal from his professors. As a self-starter, he has tackled his studies with energetic drive and an uncompromising and meticulous work ethic. He is often the best student in whatever computer science course he takes. He shows personal initiative, perseverance, communication skills, and ability to perform creative analysis in his individual and team work. Vinnie has proven his natural ability to be a team player and leader by working with several student teams in my capstone projects course.”
In addition, Vinnie holds a President’s Scholarship; belongs to Kappa Mu Epsilon, a mathematics honor society; and participates in the Pforzheimer Honors College. He has travelled to Brazil to learn about green development and sustainability and to provide technical assistance to schools and community groups; and has served as captain of the Seidenberg team that recently competed in the 2011 Northeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition held outside of Boston. In his spare time, he likes tinkering with cars and engines. “I especially like older American cars, from the 1950s and 60s. My father always used to be working on something in the garage as I grew up, so I guess it’s in my blood.”
With receipt of the IASP scholarship, Vinnie will be able to pursue his many academic and research interests during his senior year and at the graduate-level. He foresees himself obtaining a doctorate and following a career in applied research as he “enjoys bridging the gap between theory and research.” He believes that artificial intelligence will become increasingly important in the design of advanced security systems. Those with the greatest sophistication will need to incorporate in-depth understanding of cognitive processes.
In the future, we can most assuredly predict that John “Vinnie” Monaco will make his mark in the world just as he has during his years at Pace.