In a world of increasing reliance on digital systems and applications for everything from banking to healthcare to municipal sewer systems, professionals who vigilantly prevent and defend against online threats are in high demand.
The benefits of global connectivity have enabled the modern innovations which people, businesses and governments have embraced. The Internet has revolutionized communication, commerce and lifestyles. But it also is built of windows that attract hackers of all kinds who try to pry their way into secure systems.
Mississippi State University is training top cybersecurity professionals. In many cases, these students are destined for government service in support of national defense.
Since 2001, MSU has been funded by both the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency to produce security engineers for government service under Cyber Corps Scholarship for Service programs.
More than 125 Cyber Corps scholars have graduated from MSU.
Scholars must be U.S. citizens eligible for federal service, and they must serve the government one year for every year of scholarship after graduation. The competitive scholarship pays all tuition and fees, as well as a stipend of $20,000-$30,000 for each nine-month academic year.
“MSU is among a relatively elite group of schools helping the nation meet its need for highly-skilled cyber warriors,” said David A. Dampier, a professor of computer science and engineering.
Earlier this year, a Hewlett Packard-sponsored survey by the Michigan-based Ponemon Institute showed the university’s cybersecurity courses and degree programs rank among the top three in the nation for academic excellence and practical relevance.
Only the University of Texas at San Antonio and Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, ranked higher at first and second, respectively. Syracuse University in New York state and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh tied for fourth place, while Purdue University in Indiana was fifth.
Last year, the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command designated MSU’s cyber operations program as a Center of Academic Excellence for providing superior cyber warfare programs. The university also holds national CAE designations in information assurance education, information assurance research and in information assurance/cyber defense.
The CAE program was started in 1999 to reduce the vulnerability of the nation’s cyber and network infrastructure by promoting information assurance in higher education and producing more graduates with the background and expertise in computer science and cyber defense disciplines.
“This CAE certification further enables us to teach skills that are used by federal agencies engaged in cyber war––giving Mississippi State students an added edge when competing for jobs,” Dampier said. He explained that students who include the cyber ops option in their coursework will be exposed to a diverse range of cybersecurity skills.
To be considered for Cyber Corps Scholarship for Service, students must be majoring in computer science, software engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, industrial engineering or information systems. Dampier said each discipline brings a unique perspective to the table when it comes to approaching cybersecurity issues. However, all cybersecurity students no matter their discipline of origin, learn the ins and outs necessary to tackle relevant issues with vengeance, he said.
“Key skills will be the ability to conduct penetration tests of computer networks, as well as reverse engineering software, including viruses, Trojan horses and other forms of malware,” Dampier said. “These skills are in demand by government agencies, as well as private contractors working on computer security-related projects.” The program also ensures students learn broader skills to include security core concepts such as information assurance, network security, and digital forensics, as well as risk assessment, secure system design, security policy and conformance.
Cyber Corps scholars are responsible for acquiring a summer internship with a government agency during their studies. Dampier and his colleague Tommy Morris, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, as well as other faculty members, often help students make employment connections.
“We help by inviting employers to come for private interview sessions with our students. There are quite a few government agencies that come to campus, including the CIA, Corps of Engineers, NSA, Defense Information Systems Agency, Army Intelligence Systems Command and others which conduct private interview sessions at MSU,” Dampier said. “They come to us because of the reputation that MSU has for producing students who can perform on Day 1 after graduation.”
The majority of cybersecurity students who gain employment or
internships before graduation are required to have at least a secret clearance and many go up to highest clearance levels, Morris explained.
Many faculty members also hold active federal government security clearances ranging from secret to top secret, which allows them to have access into agencies to discuss ongoing challenges and related research objectives.
“The research we do allows us to flow current best practices right back into our classrooms, so we stay on the cutting edge of cybersecurity by working with government agencies and industry to understand the problems they are facing and working for solutions,” Dampier said.
The university’s cybersecurity capabilities include several research centers. The newly created Distributed Analytics and Security Institute is leading a new large-scale initiative along with a prominent U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory to solve problems related to big data analytics, distributed computing and cybersecurity. Dampier is directing the effort, while Morris is DASI’s associate director. The $5.6-million partnership between MSU and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will provide capabilities in big data fusion and compression, analytics of power systems, autonomic computing, big data visualization, malware attribution, industrial control system cybersecurity, and visual analytics. DASI is affiliated with the university’s High Performance Computing Collaboratory, which provides supercomputing resources.
In addition to Dampier and Morris, a whole team of experts and researchers make up the university’s cybersecurity human capital. Faculty members contribute to DASI and additionally operate three other university research centers dedicated to cybersecurity: the Center for Computer Security Research, the National Forensics Training Center and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Center.
MSU’s Center for Computer Security Research is dedicated to the scientific exploration of computer vulnerabilities with the objective of improving prevention and detection techniques through core research areas. The National Forensics Training Center provides support for solving and preventing cyber crimes. Its operations include the Cyber Crime Fusion Center in Jackson, which works closely with offices of Attorney General Jim Hood, the Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal, state and local agencies.
The Critical Infrastructure Protection Center works to prevent cybersecurity threats to systems that are considered critical to society and the economy. The Department of Homeland Security has defined 18 categories of critical infrastructure, including financial systems, industrial control systems, electrical systems, pipelines, among others.
While university efforts are pointed at leading the nation in cybersecurity issues with advanced research and teaching, MSU also strives to educate the general campus population about computer security issues which affect most of society.
Each fall the university takes part in observing Cyber Security Awareness Week with an array of educational activities to inform users about significant computer and information security issues.
Dampier said the nation needs highly trained cybersecurity professionals who are equipped to address current and future issues with the utmost degree of ethics and integrity. He said individuals who are not pursuing cybersecurity as a profession also should make a deliberate effort to stay apprised of online threats and how to prevent and defend against them. Becoming educated and aware is one of the best ways to prevent identity theft, security breaches, and other online threats, he said.
Cyber Corps Scholarship for Service students are selected from a competitive pool of top majors in computer science, software engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, industrial engineering and information systems. ALUMNUS asked these graduates and former Cyber Corps scholars how their MSU college experiences prepared them for where they are today.
Robert Gatlin, graduated May 2010, B.S. and May 2012, M.S., information systems
Occupational title: I.T. specialist, Information Security, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Cybersecurity & Communications, Washington, D.C.
“I think it comes down to two factors: the MSU faculty and team projects with fellow students. First, my experience with the faculty at MSU was outstanding during my tenure as a student. Not only was the faculty well versed in their areas of expertise, many of them brought extensive experience from industry. Even today, I draw from the countless hours of classroom lecture and briefing materials that were provided to answer some of the difficult problems that arise at work. While it was the faculty that set the foundation for success, the team projects with fellow students really solidified the learning objectives. Being able to thrive in a team environment is critical for any college graduate entering the workforce. It’s rare that I’m assigned an individual project, and if so, it almost always leads to collaboration amongst other team members.”
Chris Bogen, graduated 2006, Ph.D., computer science
Occupational title: Computer scientist, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research Development Center, Vicksburg
“The faculty at the MSU department of computer science and engineering struck a good balance between classical computer science research and software engineering practice, including programming and information assurance. That is exactly the sort of balance that is critical in my career as a computer scientist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research Development Center.”
Allison Scogin, graduated May 2005, B.S. computer engineering, and 2007, M.S. computer science with an Information Assurance Profession Certification
Occupational title: Project manager and engineer for the Department of Defense Public Key Enablement team in support of the Public Key Infrastructure, Defense Information Systems Agency, Ft. Meade, Maryland
“My time at MSU taught me many things about my field, but perhaps the most useful thing I took away was the ability to think critically and solve new problems. I took Dr. Vaughn’s computer security course as one of my electives the last semester of undergrad. I had spent years learning about the low level workings of computers and how to program, but I hadn’t spent much time thinking about how to secure them. It was a fascinating course and ultimately changed the direction of my life. I was lucky enough to be a recipient of the Federal Cyber Security Scholarship for Service program which paid for my graduate degree and helped me secure my current position at DISA.”