Senior Director JSOC Analytics, Global Cyber Security, RBC

I am Sahar Rahmani, a PhD in science, an immigrant, a wife and a parent.  Currently, I am the Director of a Data Science team at the Global Cyber Security (GCS) group at RBC. My role involves leading a team of data scientists and machine learning engineers to provide AI solutions for detecting the ever-changing landscape of cyber/digital crime. We collaborate with various teams both within RBC and with RBC’s partners to implement scalable real-time machine learning solutions for their security related issues. We also bring insight and analytics to the big data aspect of cybersecurity to help executives make data-driven strategic decisions to keep our customers’ information safe. I always encourage and emphasize innovations in the application of AI/ML in digital risk. This mindset has not only resulted in solving business problems in more effective ways, but has also resulted in creating multiple patents, publishing peer-reviewed research papers, and presenting conference talks. Besides the work-related activities, I teach in data science workshops and mentor students and junior data scientists to help them start or grow their career in the field of data science.

My graduate and post-graduate journey involved attending schools in three different continents: I earned my bachelor’s degree in physics from the Sharif University in Iran, after which I moved to England to continue my studies in Astrophysics, where I got my master’s degree from the University of Sussex. After spending a year in England, I moved to Canada to start my PhD at the university of the Western Ontario on August of 2012. During my PhD, I had the privilege to work with one of the most forward-thinking Astrophysics in Canada, Prof. Pauline Barmby. She encouraged me and taught me to look at problems from various angles and find novel solutions for them by studying and understandings techniques that are used in other fields of science. As a result of this exercise, I started to learn about data mining, machine learning, and numerous statistical models which built the foundation for my transition from academia to a role as a data scientist in industry. To be able to improve in my role and be best at what I do, I had to develop a few strategies in my life. The strategy that helped me most in facing new changes and challenges in my path is to put on my scientist hat when facing a challenge and try to come up with a novel and innovative way to find a resolution.

An important part of my life that has shaped me into the person I am today, is being an immigrant. People who don’t live in their hometown know very well that leaving your city and country is not easy. There are always cultural shocks and family, friends and loved ones are missed. In a similar way, moving from academic life to an industry one is not an easy transition, neither. As an academic, I was accustomed to a research-based mindset. However, I have to learn that data scientists who works in the industry have to learn to maintain a balance between doing research for products as well as delivering the products in a fast-paced environment. As a woman who studied physics I was always in a minority group in both my academic and my industry life. But, if I learned one thing from living in different countries, it is how to adapt, navigate through challenges, and try to work towards improving myself and my environment. That’s one of the reasons that I always encourage women to study in STEM fields and try to help women who are at the start of their career to have the confidence and the courage to speak up for themselves.

How can I navigate through all these activities, work, being a mom and have a life? Well, the answer is obvious: I get help. There is only 24 hours in a day and one cannot do all the work alone. During my journey, I’ve always had support systems to help me through. My husband helps me in all aspect of taking care of my son and household chores. He always supports and encourages my decisions. My parents and sisters, although living thousands of kilometers away, always have a great role on pushing me forward and giving me the courage that I need to take on new challenges. My manger always supports me greatly, both in pushing me out of my comfort zone, and understanding and accommodating my family situation. My friends, my classmates, my team, and my colleagues are all essential factors in my successes. There are always challenges, roadblocks, and ups and downs on the way. I cannot emphasis enough the importance of my support groups during the hard days. I would not be in this stage of my life and career without them and I cannot thank them enough.

What’s next then? Honestly who knows! Right now, I am working on improving my knowledge of cybersecurity and management. Working in the cross section of the cybersecurity and AI for the past few years has given me the belief that the combination of these two fields is one of the most important career paths in the future. You might have heard that in this era data is more valuable than oil and it must be protected. Our detection and protection systems improve by the hour, but in the same time threat actors are improving their techniques and the threat landscape changes rapidly and that is what make the hybrid of cyber security and AI so interesting and challenging. As we’ve seen in the past few months, life, and even the World, changes in a blink of an eye. A year ago, none of us would have thought that our lives would be so different as they are today. Who knows what will happen in the future and what it’s effect will be on our lives. The best thing we can do is to embrace the challenge, always learn and improve ourselves and put our knowledge to best use.