From ROTC cadets to cyber pros

Cybersecurity has become one of the most serious economic and national security challenges that the U.S. faces today, but it's one that the government is not adequately prepared to counter. The global cybersecurity workforce is expected to be short 1.8 million workers by 2022, leaving an enormous gap that begs to be filled. For the Department of Defense (DoD) and armed services, this means a greater focus on attracting top cyber talent who can defend the nation against the threat of cyber warfare.

Georgia Tech and other top universities across the nation are taking part in a program that enables Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets and midshipmen to become cybersecurity experts. The Cyber Spectrum Collaborative Research Environment (C-SCoRE) program helps cadets develop operational skills that will be instrumental in combatting cyber and electronic warfare in the interest of national security. Bill Melvin, director of Georgia Tech Research Institute's Sensors and Intelligent Systems Division and adjunct electrical and computer engineering professor, had the original vision for the program. Melvin is also a former Air Force officer and ROTC cadet himself.

Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) received joint funding from the Air Force and Navy this year to hire ROTC students into the program. One of the teams focuses on Bluetooth and Near Field Communication threats, secure boot for microprocessors, and vulnerabilities in power grid electronics and their effect on security.

It's critically important for cadets to learn these cyber skills. The military wants to learn from the Internet of Things – for strategic benefits like improved communication – but existing security weaknesses can leave the nation open to being manipulated by our adversaries.

When students participate in the C-SCoRE program, they gain the operational skills and perspective on how to defend against cyberattacks. Even learning the basics – such as authentication, encryption and technology for true random number generation – can help protect systems from being hacked.

“I'm a computer science major, and cybersecurity has been a passion of mine since high school,” said Alexander Hennie-Roed, Navy cadet and computer science major at Georgia Tech. “Right now, I'm working with power grids, and I'm hoping the Navy will want to utilize those skills.”

“It's been really interesting for me to go into this field of study that's going to have such an impact on my life in the fleet,” says Belle Lehmann, Navy cadet and ISyE major at Georgia Tech. “Cybersecurity is going to be really important in the future. C-SCoRE has broadened my horizons and my understanding of so many things.”

As a woman, Lehmann hopes to inspire others who are in the minority to pursue their passions. 

“As a student at Georgia Tech, an ROTC midshipman and a researcher in the cybersecurity field, I am no stranger to being in the minority as a woman,” says Lehmann. “I am one of very few women in each of those fields. But for me, I don't really worry about that because this is what I'm passionate about, and I won't let my gender be a barrier to that. Women can participate and be a part of these programs just as much as men can. It's all about taking that initial step in following your passion.”

Lehmann wants to see other women rise in these fields, and she hopes that they will see what she's doing and feel motivated and inspired.

Chris Smith, principal research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, is one of the project directors of the C-SCoRE program. He agrees that there is a real need for cybersecurity officers who are knowledgeable and trained in cyber warfare.

“Often, cadets graduate from ROTC without having any operational experience,” says Smith. “The hands-on, experiential learning from C-SCoRE ensures they are savvier about cyber and electronic warfare upon graduation.”

Vincent Mooney is an associate professor at the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

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