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Northeastern receives $4.5M award to train future cybersecurity workforce

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.”