ORNL: Gina Accawi: Designing software architecture for advanced manufacturing cybersecurity

As a computer engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Gina Accawi has long been the quiet and steady force behind some of the Department of Energy’s most widely used online tools and applications. She has written the code that industry throughout the United States relies on – from MEASUR, the platform allowing manufacturers to assess the efficiency of energy systems and equipment within a plant, to the Building Science Advisor, the website advising builders on how to construct energy efficient envelope systems.

Now, she’s taking those past successes and applying her computer expertise to a new role as the leader for the Digital Manufacturing and Analyses Framework Group, part of the Digital and Secure Manufacturing Section within the lab’s Manufacturing Science Division.

“This group provides the support the engineers and researchers need to build whatever tools, whatever software, whatever applications they need,” Accawi said. “I’m bringing together experts in artificial intelligence and cybersecurity; developers and database programmers. Our team exists to support the R&D staff so that their visions are realized.”

With the implementation of 5G, data can be transferred at unprecedented speeds. Accawi’s team will be relied upon to make sure advanced manufacturing software and systems keep pace in a secure cyberspace. She will work with researchers who drive innovations in robotics and automation, machine tooling and 3D printing applications.

“We’re investigating, for example, deploying sensors on machines to collect large quantities of data and then leveraging our supercomputer to learn more about what’s happening in the data,” she said. “It’s all about systems, networking, and wireless data. But once you have all of that data, how can you see into it and make sense of it? How can we handle large amounts of data, visualize its meaning and keep it safe?”

Building better platforms

Accawi, who joined ORNL in 2009, knows firsthand the challenges that go along with implementing new software programs. She has disassembled, repurposed and rebuilt multiple programs across numerous platforms. Throughout any project she’s tasked with, no matter how complex, she remains focused on the end user.

“We can take legacy software and update it and improve it, but it has to work well for the user, too,” she said. “For example, with the MEASUR tool, I was presented with these standalone tools to gauge the efficiency of pumps, furnaces and fans, and they were all separate.

“Now, imagine the user having to access each one. It’s time consuming and cumbersome. However, we found a way to consolidate the individual tools into one larger desktop platform that not only performs more efficiently but saves the user time and effort, too,” Accawi said.

Developing tools for real-world applications has always been at the heart of Accawi’s work. She initially joined the lab to design and implement a weatherization application for DOE that assisted state agencies and auditors in helping homeowners understand how to make their homes healthier and more energy efficient.

“With weatherization tools, we were essentially providing information that could keep someone from freezing or, in some cases, from getting seriously ill,” she said. “We were able to inform people about the potentially harmful materials found in their homes, making them aware so that they could take action.”

Computer programming and health and safety aren’t often considered vital to each other, but Accawi sees their direct connection.

“My first lab project with weatherization gave me the opportunity to develop an audit tool just for health and safety and to help identify such things as lead paint and carbon dioxide risks,” she said. “Every program I’ve worked on since I’ve been here, I feel good and right about, too.”

Ground floor perspective

Although she’s a seasoned veteran in the software field, it’s not what she initially envisioned as a career. Growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Accawi didn’t entertain the notion of working at the nearby laboratory one day, primarily because of her perception.

“I learned about the Manhattan Project in school and that’s really all I connected with ORNL,” she said. “This was in the 1980s and early 1990s, and that’s what it was known for then. I didn’t see how I could ever benefit such a place.”

Accawi is the first college graduate in her family, but she didn’t enter the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with the intent of pursuing a computer science and mathematics degree. In fact, she wanted to be a writer, because, ironically, she didn’t consider herself to be good in math. But she started college at a time when computers were becoming mainstream tools and software programs were evolving.

“I was learning when all of these programs we rely on today, like Windows, MacOS, were in their infant stages,” she said. “It was something I saw that could quickly lead to employability if I could acquire the skillset.”

Along with computer science came, of course, mathematics.

“I discovered I wasn’t as bad as I thought. I just wasn’t applying math in the right way; it was all about the application of math and when used with computer programming, it made perfect sense,” she said.

After graduation, Accawi left East Tennessee for the first time, working in Minneapolis as a software engineer for technology industries where she developed database driven web applications. It was in those early days as a mainframe programmer that she learned HTML and was introduced to her first internet browser. She later spent several years as a freelance technical trainer and advisor, traveling across the country supporting various companies. She has also provided web and software support for real estate and legal firms and entertainment companies. It was her work in real estate that ultimately drove her decision to work at ORNL.

“The market crash happened and that turned the real estate market upside down,” she said. “I realized that the lab represented stability and had the diversity I was looking for in projects. Working at ORNL gives me a satisfaction that working in the private sector never did.”

Accawi has worked closely with DOE’s Better Buildings, Better Plants Program, sponsored by the Advanced Manufacturing Office, which supports industries throughout the nation on how to improve energy intensity, develop management plans and track and support progress. Her online tools and software – garnering tens of thousands of downloads with MEASUR alone registering 25,000 – have been a primary contributor to the program’s success in achieving $8.2 billion in cumulative cost savings for more than 3,200 industry participants.

“My work with Better Buildings, Better Plants is the big reason why I’m working with manufacturing now,” she said. “I’m still learning about advanced manufacturing, and I know we have a huge potential for significant growth in the cybersecurity area. I’ll continue to be focused on helping people make decisions and save energy by giving them the comparison tools and infrastructure support they need to do so – but this time I’ll be helping the researchers make those critical decisions, too.”

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

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