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Past Winner
2005 NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prize

Jem Berkes

Master's Level

University of Waterloo


Jem Berkes
Jem Berkes

Jem Berkes is a hacker. Not the kind holed up in a suburban bedroom trolling the Internet for credit card data or spewing-out spam – what Mr. Berkes calls a "cracker." No, this University of Waterloo first-year Master's student in electrical and computer engineering is a white knight of good hackers, an individual who harnesses his all-consuming enthusiasm for code to create novel and useful software and computer electronics. It's this passion that fuelled his undergraduate research at the University of Manitoba – research which produced software on par with that of corporate giants and has earned him a 2005 NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prize.

Long before university, it was teacher Carol Kaye's computer club at Winnipeg's St. John's Ravenscourt elementary school that set Mr. Berkes on the path to growing computer fame. At ten years of age, he and a close-knit group of like-minded friends were hooked on after school computer programming. By his teens, Mr. Berkes had created a successful international software company with clients that included Florida's Division of Emergency Management.

This past summer he was part of Google's "Summer of Code" project. One of hundreds of talented computer programmers hired by the Internet giant to develop open-source code, Mr. Berkes worked with an MIT graduate student to develop next generation code for the Apache web server, the world's most popular web server.

At the University of Manitoba's Internet Innovation Centre, Mr. Berkes' personal and commercial pursuits merged with his academic ones and his "hacking" was rebranded as "research" as part of a team of computer engineering students supervised by Dr. Robert McLeod.

Focused on problems posed by Internet equipment, Mr. Berkes' team developed software to improve Network Address Translation, or NAT technology. NAT technology enables several computers to access the Net through a single IP address. It's the equivalent of several individuals sharing a phone number. On the Internet, however, this sharing causes problems. NAT users, for example, often had difficulty transferring files. Mr. Berkes' team developed a software solution for NAT's limitations, including developing a NAT-compatible Internet-based phone system, known as Voice Over IP.

"There was a lot of competition at the time to develop software for this problem," says Mr. Berkes. "We knew we'd developed something interesting because the Big Boys developed similar tools to the ones we were making on our own."

While focused on computer codes, Mr. Berkes has also kept an eye out for how they're used.

"In engineering you're designing things for people to use. So you have to consider human psychology and the ways that people are used to doing things," says Mr. Berkes, who graduated from U of M with a minor in psychology.

It's an approach to computer engineering that will serve Mr. Berkes well as this good hacker tackles the cat-and-mouse world of cybersecurity. Working with supervisor Dr. Catherine Gebotys at Waterloo , he will try to find ways to prevent electronic information from leaking from laptops, cell phones and handheld computer devices. These increasingly popular portable digital devices sometimes give away key clues to potential attackers just through the way electricity flows through them.

It's work he's set for: at the U of M, Mr. Berkes' team developed a technique for thwarting attacks on Internet spam control measures – research that resulted in the rare sight of an undergraduate student presenting at an international computer science forum in Boston.

Mrs. Kaye – the now retired elementary school teacher whom Mr. Berkes notes inspired several fellow computer engineering and science students – should be proud.

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