Flexing cyber superpowers in Southwest Virginia
Multidisciplinary, cross-institutional collaborations equip Commonwealth Cyber Initiative research teams to address today’s widely varied cybersecurity challenges.
A satellite network engineer, a power grid researcher, and a sound design artist walk into a bar and use their collective skill sets to solve a cybersecurity problem. This is not a joke — except the bar part. It was an exercise for attendees at the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) Southwest Virginia annual node meeting on Oct. 11.
Diverse and sometimes unlikely collaborations equip CCI research teams to address today’s widely varied cybersecurity challenges.
“Connecting people is our superpower,” said Gretchen Matthews, Virginia Tech mathematics professor and director of CCI Southwest Virginia. “Our researchers exhibit a willingness to work across units, institutions, and disciplinary boundaries.”
The Commonwealth Cyber Initiative is Virginia’s main access point for cybersecurity research, innovation, workforce development, and news. The Southwest Virginia node of CCI supports and seeds efforts at Virginia Tech, Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Radford University, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, and a network of community colleges.
After a welcome from Virginia Tech Senior Vice President of Research and Innovation Dan Sui, the annual meeting showcased the expertise and impact of CCI across the region with updates from partner institutions and major research thrust areas.
Attendees were asked to imagine what they could accomplish when they worked together — right then and there. After being randomly assigned to tables, the participants introduced themselves and were prompted to come up with a cybersecurity-related problem that could benefit from their collective skills and experiences. Brainstorming and creative contortions commenced. Finally, the participants posted their names, expertise, and ideas on the windows around the room and toured the gallery of other out-of-the-box schemes.
Stimulating? Difficult? Maybe both, but the point of this short activity was to encourage members to recognize the added value of varied perspectives and innovative interfaces. Cybersecurity issues are highly interdisciplinary — our responses must be also, said Matthews.
“Of course, in the real world, we often have the freedom to choose who we want to work with,” Matthews said to the packed-house node meeting. “When you assemble your teams in the future, we hope that you will cast your net broadly and take advantage of the deep bench of resources available throughout the region and across the CCI network.”
A number of the CCI calls for proposals require applicants from more than one institution and encourage multidisciplinary expertise. This strategy advances Virginia’s role as a global leader in cybersecurity via collaboration rather than competition among Virginia institutions.
The success of CCI collaboration and connection is evident in the accomplishments of CCI Southwest Virginia throughout the past year. The node supported 50 active research programs involving nearly 80 researchers — more than 20 percent of whom were new to CCI — representing investigations from every one of CCI Southwest Virginia’s research areas.
In the past year, CCI researchers conducted deep explorations of core technologies in 5G/NextG, quantum information theory, cryptography, and machine learning to fuel faster, more secure communications systems and expand high-impact applications such as satellite internet security and power grid protection.
“By building bridges between institutions, we learn from each other,” said Mohamed Azab, VMI assistant professor. “We can pave the road for young leaders to be more equipped for next generation cyber challenges.”
Azab discussed recent CCI-supported collaborations between institutions — one, an expansion of a recent workforce development project where Virginia Tech graduate students and VMI cadets are building a cybersecurity-aware test bed while also mentoring high school students. VMI computer and information science researchers are also partnering with Virginia Tech faculty members in computer science in the College of Engineering and from the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This new project is addressing workforce and cybersecurity challenges in dairy production.
CCI’s interdisciplinary research collaborations draw on and develop the talent of cybersecurity students, as can be seen in a CCI-supported Virginia Tech National Security Institute project led by Alan Michaels, electrical and computer engineering professor and director of the Hume Center's electronic systems lab. This project supports students from departments all over the Blacksburg campus as they investigate the use and abuse of personal private information. Virginia Tech undergraduate students Mary Nerayo and Justin Perez, who presented their work to-date at the node meeting, are studying business and information technology and computer science, respectively. The research project recently expanded to include students from Radford University.
In the past fiscal year, 65 graduate students and 67 undergraduates conducted long-term cybersecurity research projects through CCI Southwest Virginia, while more than 59 undergraduates engaged in experiential learning. All of this activity resulted in a more than five-fold return on investment.
“The numbers don’t say it all — but I have to share them because they are remarkable,” Matthews said to the group. “We’re doing this because our researchers assemble diverse teams that bring a variety of perspectives to address today’s cybersecurity challenges. It makes all the difference."
CCI @ Southwest Virginia institutions/institutes
Speakers represented selected Commonwealth Cyber Initiative partner institutions within Southwest Virginia, including:
Virginia Tech National Security Institute
- Mary Nerayo, undergraduate student, business information technology, Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business
- Justin Perez, undergraduate student, computer science, Virginia Tech College of Engineering
Representing CCI projects led by Alan Michaels, electrical and computer engineering, Virginia Tech College of Engineering
Virginia Military Institute
- Mohamed Azab, assistant professor, computer and information sciences, Virginia Military Institute
Virginia Western Community College
- B. Bagby, assistant professor, computer science and information technology, Virginia Western Community College
- Prem Uppuluri, professor, computer science, Radford University
Cyber + primary research thrusts
Speakers represented selected Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Southwest Virginia research areas, including:
Cyber + agriculture
- Susan Duncan, director of the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture and associate dean of Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Cyber + communications
- Qingyu Liu, research faculty member, electrical and computer engineering, Virginia Tech College of Engineering
Representing CCI projects led by Tom Hou, Bradley Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Virginia Tech College of Engineering
Cyber + cryptography
- Travis Morrison, assistant professor, mathematics, Virginia Tech College of Science
Cyber + power
- Nitasha Sahani, graduate student, electrical and computer engineering, Virginia Tech College of Engineering
- Baza Rodrigue Somda, graduate student, electrical and computer engineering, Virginia Tech College of Engineering
Representing CCI projects led by Chen-Ching Liu, American Electric Power Professor, electrical and computer engineering, Virginia Tech College of Engineering
Cyber + quantum
- Wayne Scales, professor, J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering, electrical and computer engineering, Virginia Tech College of Engineering
Cyber + space
- Samantha Parry Kenyon, research associate, Virginia Tech Center for Space Science and Engineering Research, Virginia Tech College of Engineering