In response to a critical national shortage of highly trained experts in cybersecurity, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) more than $4.4 million to develop a program that will prepare professionals to address cybersecurity challenges and threats for the federal government. Funded through the NSF's CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service (SFS) initiative, WPI's program will help bolster the national cybersecurity workforce by providing scholarships for 25 undergraduates and graduate students who will commit to government service after graduation.
With its CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program, the NSF, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, supports the educational and professional development of domestic students who will then help the United States address a host of threats to national security, including significant threats to such critical infrastructure as utilities, military defense systems, water treatment plants, and refineries. The increasing role of digital technologies in these infrastructures has both increased and changed the security vulnerabilities in these facilities.
"This NSF funding is further evidence that WPI remains on the cutting edge of cybersecurity," U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. "We have a critical need for additional experts in this field—a need that the federal government can and should help to fill. I want to congratulate the WPI Cybersecurity Program for this award."
"This exciting grant will allow WPI to elevate the already excellent value and skills that our graduates bring to the workforce," said WPI President Laurie Leshin. "I am particularly gratified that we will be able to attract the best and brightest students to help ensure that our nation's infrastructure stays secure."
Directed by Kathi Fisler, PhD, professor of computer science and director of the WPI Cybersecurity Program, the SFS program will award 25 students significant scholarships over five years, along with stipends that cover books, travel, and other expenses. The students must commit to completing a summer internship with a participating federal, state, local, or tribal government agency, or federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) and to one year of government employment for each year they receive scholarship funds.
WPI is well positioned to support the government's efforts to expand the academic pipeline for cybersecurity experts, according to Craig Shue, PhD, assistant professor of computer science and co-principal investigator for the WPI award. "Even as events like the JPMorgan Chase, Target, and Sony breaches make international headlines and illustrate the need for cybersecurity expertise, one of the challenges we face is that many students don’t fully understand the diversity of exciting opportunities in the field," said Shue, a former cybersecurity researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories. "This program, specifically its outreach component, will allow us to attract the next generation to the profession."
Dan Mitchell '11,'12 (MS), a software engineer for Charles River Analytics Inc., said the SFS program is an extraordinary opportunity for WPI students interested in cybersecurity and the public sector to finance their education, while ensuring excellent future job prospects.
Like Shue, he also highlighted the diversity of professional opportunities in cybersecurity. "The field is extremely broad," he said. "There are penetration testers who focus on using tools to test companies’ security and find any weaknesses in their setup; vulnerability researchers who focus on actually finding flaws and writing exploit code for everyday software; malware researchers who look for and analyze malicious code found on systems; forensic specialists who analyze systems after attacks; and a hundred other specialties."
Having long offered cybersecurity research projects and courses for students pursuing a PhD in either computer science or electrical and computer engineering, the university added a cybersecurity specialization for its existing MS program in computer science in 2012. Both programs, as well as a number of new graduate courses in cybersecurity, are seeing rising student interest. Domestic students in the joint BS/MA, MS, and PhD programs will be eligible to participate in the SFS program.
While the university's Cybersecurity Program was formalized in 2010, WPI faculty members have been active in cybersecurity research since 1995. Today, 12 WPI faculty members in computer science, electrical and computer engineering, mathematical sciences, and social science and policy studies have active research programs in the field.
Drawing on these disciplines, WPI researchers work together to explore and develop preemptive measures, comprehensive solutions, and ongoing safeguards. Current research projects focus on such diverse areas as software security, analysis of security policies and protocols, network security, embedded system security, cyberphysical system security, cryptography, and online privacy.
WPI's growing momentum in cybersecurity has not gone unnoticed. The university was recognized as a National Security Administration/Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence in Information Assurance Research in 2013. In 2014, Susan Landau, PhD, former senior staff privacy analyst at Google and a widely respected authority on cybersecurity, privacy, and public policy, joined the WPI faculty as the nation's first professor of cybersecurity policy.
"WPI's commitment to an interdisciplinary approach to cybersecurity is what brought me here," Landau said. "It's great that we’re part of the SFS program, which will allow us to expand our reach."
That expanded reach will have a direct impact on key WPI collaborators, such as MITRE, which manages a number of FFRDCs. According to Marion Michaud, PhD, technical director of MITRE's Cybersecurity Technical Center, "Establishing a CyberCorps program at WPI—a neighbor and academic partner of MITRE's—is great news for us, the New England region and the country. The SFS graduates we've hired have been exceedingly well prepared and enthusiastic about working in the public interest. With 'building a cyber-workforce' a high priority for many government agencies, WPI's program will add to the needed pipeline of top cyber talent."
In addition to administrating the scholarship program, the WPI SFS program will also add value with supplemental programmatic and recruitment activities that will engage potential students, community members, and local companies. Possible activities include a public cybersecurity seminar series, outreach programs to high school students (including summer STEM residential programs), and a presence at TouchTomorrow, WPI's annual festival of science, technology, and robotics. The SFS will also incorporate enrollment strategies that aim to impact workforce diversity with targeted recruitment of women and underrepresented students.