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Undergrads learn from experts how cybersecurity and policy intersect

April 24, 2017

Standing in a group are students in the first CyberLeaders program cohort from left to right: Nicholas Cohen, Milan Bhatia, Thomas Fowler, Neha Kapur, Sam Jones, Keily Shay,  Zilmara Bonnet
Students in the first cohort of the CyberLeaders program from left to right: Nicholas Cohen, Milan Bhatia, Thomas Fowler, Neha Kapur, Sam Jones, Keily Shay, Zilmara Bonnet.

For seven Virginia Tech undergraduates spending the spring semester in the National Capital Region, hearing directly from top national security experts like Richard Clarke, former national coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism for the United States, and Letitia Long, former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, is just part of their learning experience in Virginia Tech’s unique CyberLeaders program.

However, there is no disagreement among the students in the first CyberLeaders cohort that attending the seven lectures in the CyberLeaders Seminar Series is a highlight of the program offered by the Hume Center for National Security and Technology and funded by a grant from the Hewlett Foundation.

“It is amazing to even be in the same room with people who, undoubtedly, are at the forefront of cybersecurity,” said Keily Shay, of Chantilly, Virginia, a junior majoring in business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business.  

“In the case of Teresa Shea,” Shay pointed out, “our contact extended beyond the lecture to a tour of In-Q-Tel and having dinner with her — something you cannot get in a traditional classroom.”

As another example of the program’s reach, Shay cited the Virginia Tech-sponsored roundtable on Capitol Hill last month where experts discussed cyberthreats and cybersecurity. The students were invited to attend the event where Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman for the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence and cofounder of the Bipartisan Senate Cybersecurity Caucus, was the keynote speaker.

The CyberLeaders program is unique in another way: it is interdisciplinary, designed to help students hone skills at the intersection of cybersecurity engineering and cybersecurity regulation and policy. The Hume Center offers the program in partnership with the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and the Pamplin College of Business.

“These days, depth of knowledge in one field is not enough. Employers in cyberfields want job candidates with a broader understanding of policy and regulation, as well as the engineering challenges of cybersecurity,” said Charles Clancy, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Hume Center. “Programs like Virginia Tech’s Cyberleaders set our students apart from their peers as they prepare to join the working world.”

Sam Jones, of Herndon, Virginia, a junior majoring in electrical engineering in the College of Engineering with minors in cybersecurity and mathematics, said the interdisciplinary element, which included a course on internet law at Pamplin, undoubtedly widened his scope.

“This semester has given me a totally new perspective,” Jones said. “I can see now how important it is to understand cybersecurity from a combined technology, policy, and regulation point of view. It is not just a matter of compliance but of effect. If technology and government work together, they can help resolve any disconnect.”

What Jones derived from the program is a major goal of the program.

“We want to help students understand the importance of bridging and integrating technical knowledge and policy to effectively engage the world’s most pressing public problems,” said Anne Khademian, director of the School of Public and International Affairs.

The program’s spring curriculum is comprised of two courses, which the students attend at the School of Public and International Affairs in Alexandria, in addition to a capstone research project. Cybersecurity: Threat, Prevention, Response, and Recovery at the Enterprise Level, and Federal Cybersecurity Policy and Regulation, are taught by adjunct faculty Jeffrey Glick, who works at the Department of Homeland Security, and United States Air Force (Ret.) Col. John Medeiros, respectively.

Clancy and Khademian have teamed to teach the CyberLeaders Capstone at the Virginia Tech Research Center ─ Arlington. The topic this semester is “The Encryption Debate.” Student teams explore two different smartphone app solutions: key escrow and split key.

They are designing and implementing  a technology solution and examine governance and enforcement aspects associated with it that impact regulatory, political, and business feasibility.

Neha Kapur, of South Riding, Virginia, a sophomore majoring in computer science in the College of Engineering with minors in cybersecurity and mathematics, said that prior to CyberLeaders, her course of study had not yet included much exposure to cybersecurity.

“I was attracted to the program because I really wanted to know more about how cybersecurity was used in real-world applications. Now, not only do I have an understanding of what it means to ensure safety, but a realization of how hard that really is,” said Kapur. “I would definitely recommend the CyberLeaders program to other students looking to broaden their scope.”

In addition to Shay, Jones, and Kapur, the other four students in the program are:

  • Milan Bhatia, of West Point, Virginia, a junior majoring in computer science in the College of Engineering with a minor in mathematics
  • Zilmara Bonnet, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a junior majoring in computer engineering in the College of Engineering with a minor in cybersecurity
  • Nicholas Cohen, of Darien, Connecticut, a junior majoring in political science with a focus in national security in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
  • Tom Fowler, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a junior majoring in computer science in the College of Engineering.

Each student accepted into the CyberLeaders program receives a $5,000 scholarship for the National Capital Region semester.

The CyberLeaders program is open to any student who has an interest in cybersecurity, either in engineering or from a policy and regulation standpoint.

For more information, contact Russ Walker at rswalker@vt.edu.

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