Connecting the Bots
Alum Bryan Tuck Tracked His Computer Science Passion to a Dream Job in a UH Cyber Lab
By Laura Wagner
Bryan Tuck remembers watching his father, an Air Force avionics technician, solve electronics puzzles hidden deep inside desktop computers back in the ’90s. That early exposure to hardware sleuthing led to Tuck’s fascination with computers throughout his youth. Two careers later, it pointed him to his true calling: cyber research.
Tuck’s first career was the military. He joined the Army at 17 and landed a role in the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Caserma Ederle, Italy, first as a rifleman, then as a radio telephone operator. (Image below shows Tuck, center, seated, at his Post-Deployment Ball in 2010.)
After completing his service, he pursued career number two: performance engine machining. He had a natural aptitude for mechanics, so pursuing a course of study at automotive school and working on custom engines seemed a logical path. But his enduring passion for computers kept pushing him to try a different direction.
He thought his next career would be as a mechanical engineer. Tuck enrolled at Lone Star College and began work on his core courses, but soon hit an obstacle: College Algebra. “The Army provides waivers for certain courses based on your experience and training, so I was given a waiver for the basic College Algebra,” Tuck explained. It turned out to be the wrong move. Tuck took the next level of the course twice without success. “Just trying to forge through on my own was not working,” he said. “I didn’t have the early foundations in math that I needed.” He finally enrolled in a remedial math course, and that did the trick—Tuck was able to take College Algebra a third time and earned an A. “You’ll hear me say the word ‘foundations’ a lot,” he noted. “I can’t overemphasize how important it is.”
As he considered his options for finishing his bachelor’s, he looked at UHD. “It was a no-brainer for me,” he said. “The smaller class sizes made it easier to seek help from my professors, which is essential if you’re struggling.” He had already learned that lesson. “Flexibility was another reason I chose UHD,” he added. “The options for online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses were extremely appealing.”
By that time, the digital siren song of computers could no longer be ignored, so he set aside mechanical engineering and enrolled in the Computer Science program at UHD’s College of Sciences and Technology in fall 2019.
The Magic of Mathematics
A self-described computer hardware enthusiast and avid PC gamer (his top pick: grand strategy franchise Total War), Tuck noticed during this time that one of his favorite companies, tech innovator Nvidia, was using a recent technology called deep-learning super sampling. “I read up on it, and it basically allowed you to get more frames per second in your video games through a ‘magical’ artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm,” he explained. “Just seeing the mathematics that went into the AI and then the tangible evidence of the mathematics in the outcome … something in me just clicked. All the theory suddenly made sense, and I wanted to know more.”
During his research on deep-learning super sampling, he stumbled onto a program called CyberCops. Sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the program was a collaboration among the University of Houston (UH), UHD, and Texas Southern University (TSU). Led by principal investigator Dr. Rakesh Verma (UH), six students would study how to protect data, networks, and computers.
Recommendations were of primary importance for acceptance, so Tuck turned to his UHD professors. “I was privileged to receive recommendations from Dr. Hong Lin and Dr. Emre Yilmaz,” Tuck noted, adding, “But at UHD, I have yet to meet a professor who isn’t willing to help students. You just have to ask.”
The program proved to be the big reveal for Tuck’s future. “I had tutorials every weekday for a couple of hours in a cybersecurity lab with Dr. Katarina Jegdic (UHD), Dr. Ilija Jegdic (TSU), Dr. Randy Davila (UHD), and Dr. Wenyaw Chan (UTHealth-Houston) to go over what I would need to know to do the program research,” Tuck explained. “Probability, statistics, linear algebra, machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing—they covered all the fundamentals to give us that foundation that’s so important.”
After six months of the daily tutorials (and while still pursuing his undergraduate load at UHD), Tuck began the research portion of the program under UH’s Verma. His project: researching and implementing novel methods to detect malicious autonomous programs (bots) in Twitter.
“We took two million tweets and tried to figure out which ones were written by bots using the text of the tweets only. It’s nuanced because some people tweeting are bot-assisted—it’s even harder to detect those,” he explained. But he loved every minute of it. “Creating new methods and applying all the theory I’d learned as an undergraduate and during the tutorials to an actual project—that’s where I discovered my passion for research,” he said.
Life After UHD
Tuck began applying to doctoral programs in December 2021. “I was rejected from every single program I applied to,” he said. Tuck focused on finishing his degree and graduated in May 2022 with a B.S. in Computer Science, formulating a Plan B for graduate school. “Dr. Verma gave me the opportunity to continue conducting research after graduation, and that was the turning point,” he said.
He crammed as many hours into the day as possible to finish his research. Armed with a solid body of data, he reapplied to doctoral programs in December 2022, ultimately landing the spot of his dreams. “I was accepted to UH in their Ph.D. Computer Science program for fall 2023 with Dr. Verma as my advisor,” he shared. “I’ll be conducting research and teaching. I could not be happier.”
“Bryan is an example of how far hard work and determination can take you,” said Mathematics and Statistics Professor Jegdic. “He never gave up until he understood class topics. We’re very proud he landed a position in Dr. Verma’s lab, and we know he will be an outstanding representative of CST throughout his career.”
Tuck hopes to continue to grow as a researcher through his doctoral work and ultimately conduct impactful research in his own lab. “I’d like to conduct research in industry after completing my Ph.D., and then transition back into academia to both teach and to establish my own research group,” he said.
His plans are flexible, though. Given his multi-career start in life and the academic challenges he’s faced, he’s learned to keep an open mind. “Life will throw you curve balls,” he said. “When unexpected challenges happen, you have to adapt and learn from the experiences, not be paralyzed.”
His advice to undergrads: “The more education you get, the more doors will potentially open for you. And everything you study is relevant to your future. Every course you take, even though you may not see it now, will come back around and have information you need. So don’t just go for the grade—get as much as you can out of each class.”
Biggest lesson learned at UHD? “The value of networking and creating connections,” Tuck said. “I’m a first-generation college graduate so I didn’t have people in my family who could help point the way. They were proud of me and supported me, but the connections with my professors and fellow students—they’ve been invaluable.”
Tuck particularly noted “the huge influence of Dr. Jegdic. She was my number one advocate and a different kind of educator—she really goes the extra mile,” he said. He also gave a shout-out to Dr. Benjamin Soibam and Dr. Dvijesh Shastri, in addition to Yilmaz and Lin, his family, and his wife, Chelsea. “Without the help of all these people, my successes would not have been possible,” he said.
In elementary school, Tuck once wrote his career goal was to be a video game developer. Is that a potential fourth career?
He just smiles.
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates more than 15,000 students, boasts more than 64,000 alumni, and offers 46 bachelor’s degrees, 11 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities & Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences & Technology. For the fourth consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report ranks UHD among universities across the nation for Best Online Criminal Justice Programs (No. 27 and No. 15 for Veterans) and Best Online Bachelor’s Programs. UHD has the most affordable tuition among four-year universities in Houston and one of the lowest in Texas. U.S. News ranked the University among Top Performers on Social Mobility and awarded UHD a No. 1 ranking as the most diverse institution of higher education in the southern region of the U.S. The University is noted nationally as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, Minority-Serving Institution, and Military Friendly School. For more on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit www.uhd.edu.