Northeastern receives $4.5M award to train future cybersecurity workforce

From left, David R. Kaeli, associate dean of undergraduate programs in the College of Engineering, Agnes Chan, associate dean and director of graduate programs at the College of Computer and Information Science, and assistant professor Will Robertson, a systems security researcher in the College of Computer and Information Science and the College of Engineering. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Thou­sands of open cyber­se­cu­rity posi­tions in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment under­score the fact that our nation suf­fers from a sig­nif­i­cant lack of pro­fes­sional exper­tise in this field.

“Training for human resources is a major issue right now,” said Agnes Chan, asso­ciate dean of grad­uate studies in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ences.

Chan is prin­cipal inves­ti­gator on a recent $4.5 mil­lion grant from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion that will extend the university’s schol­ar­ship pro­gram in infor­ma­tion assur­ance. William Robertson, assis­tant pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Engi­neering and David Kaeli, asso­ciate dean of under­grad­uate pro­grams in the Col­lege of Engi­neering, will serve as the grant’s co-principal investigators.

The Cyber­Corps: Schol­ar­ship for Ser­vice pro­gram pro­vides both under­grad­uate and grad­uate stu­dents full tuition, fees and a stipend for the final two or three years of their studies. In return, stu­dents agree to serve for two or three years in infor­ma­tion assur­ance posi­tions in the fed­eral, state or local gov­ern­ment or at a fed­er­ally funded research and devel­op­ment center.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment, Robertson noted, is having a hard time keeping pace with the cur­rent scale of attacks against national assets. As a result, he explained, “Recruiting and devel­oping this talent is a top pri­ority at the gov­ern­ment agen­cies respon­sible for civilian and mil­i­tary cybersecurity.”

The stu­dents in the pro­gram, Roberts explained, will also have the oppor­tu­nity to work on con­crete topics related to broad areas like mobile secu­rity and secure system design. He noted that Northeastern’s secu­rity researchers have active projects in a number of these areas.

Through their intern­ships and co-op posi­tions, stu­dents also have access to broad research oppor­tu­ni­ties. Ryan Whelan, for example, a com­puter engi­neering doc­toral can­di­date in the pro­gram, interned with a cyber­se­cu­rity group at MIT Lin­coln Lab­o­ra­tory. The lab is now spon­soring his research in dynamic-software analysis and the expe­ri­ence, he said, con­firmed his interest in the field.

“The SFS pro­gram helped focus my studies and inter­ests on cyber­se­cu­rity,” Whelan said.

But, Chan said, skills in the tech­nical and com­puter sci­ences alone will not pre­pare a stu­dent for a suc­cessful career as a cyber defender. “Our pro­gram is diverse in every respect — we’re able to train stu­dents whose back­ground is not tech­nical to under­stand what cyber­se­cu­rity is all about and to use the tools,” she explained.

“Human­i­ties stu­dents are ideal can­di­dates for infor­ma­tion assur­ance posi­tions,” added Samuel Jenkins, who enrolled in the master’s pro­gram with an under­grad­uate degree in polit­ical science.

Jenkins recently accepted a posi­tion with the Exec­u­tive Office of the Pres­i­dent, and will pro­vide infor­ma­tion tech­nology and other infra­struc­ture ser­vices to the White House. While the job will require the soft com­mu­ni­ca­tions skills he honed in his under­grad­uate training, Jenkins said he was hired for the tech­nical skills he acquired in the SFS program.

The award fol­lows on the heels of Northeastern’s recent des­ig­na­tion as one of four National Center of Aca­d­emic Excel­lence in Cyber Oper­a­tions. The project, Kaeli said, is “per­fectly aligned with the university’s mis­sion to become an inter­na­tional leader in the field of cybersecurity.”