OCTOBER 12, 2021 — A UTSA professor is leading important research to enhance the nation’s critical cybersecurity infrastructure, while also developing the industry’s next-generation workforce. Guenevere Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the UTSA College of Engineering and Integrated Design, recently secured a grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program totaling approximately $5 million over a five-year period.
The research is being conducted through the Consortium on National Critical Infrastructure Security (CONCISE). Chen and her team will leverage artificial intelligence and block-chain technology to enhance protections for infrastructure constantly under attack by hackers.
CONCISE is a consortium of Minority Serving Institutions that includes UTSA, the University of Nevada Las Vegas and North Carolina A&T. The CONCISE schools partner with Sandia National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and Nevada National Security Site on research opportunities.
Chen’s team will focus on securing the cyber and physical systems, referred to as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), that operate much of the critical infrastructure and supply chains across the nation.
A cyberattack this past summer on the Colonial Pipeline, which supplies a significant portion of gasoline resources to the Southeastern United States, generated more awareness on national infrastructure security vulnerabilities. The attack took the operation offline for several days, which reduced gasoline supply and sent gas prices soaring in several regions.
“Research objectives of this initiative include harnessing robust artificial intelligence systems to detect security intrusions such as ransomware and malware attacks at early stages to facilitate swift action and minimize damage,” Chen said.
In addition to developing cutting-edge technology, CONCISE attracts, educates and develops cybersecurity research skills for underrepresented minority students from the four member universities. Students in the CONCISE program benefit from developing cybersecurity knowledge and skills in the classroom. Valuable experiential learning opportunities also come through internships at some of the leading cybersecurity facilities in the country.
Jonathon Garibaldi became interested in cybersecurity during the first year of his computer engineering master’s program. He worked as a graduate research assistant and conducted summer internships in Chen’s IoT Security Lab. Garibaldi gained experience researching for early detection of malicious malware on computers and assisted in designing a webpage for the IoT Security Lab.
“My favorite memory was simply getting the opportunity to step into this field of work, and all the new knowledge I have gained with it,” Garibaldi said. “I'm a minority first-generation college student and I did not know opportunities like this were out there for me and (this experience) impacted my life tremendously. I have learned so much about cybersecurity and I am excited to learn more about this career path.”
Along with Garibaldi, Chen helped Erick Akins, who’s also pursuing his computer engineering master’s degree, secure an internship at INL. Akins worked with two INL cybersecurity teams this summer. Akins, who is a first-generation African American student, worked with the Cybersecurity for the Operational Technology Environment (CyOTE) and the Cyber Testing for Resilient Industrial Control Systems (CyTRICS) programs. Both programs are central to the Department of Energy’s efforts to increase security and resilience of the nation’s energy and automation sectors.
“My internship painted a clearer picture of what cybersecurity is and how the field is a lot bigger than I initially imagined,” Akins said. “It opened my mind to the different potential careers that meet the intersectionality of programming and cybersecurity that I find interesting.”
After graduation, most students involved in the CONCISE program have the skills to secure full-time employment at partner laboratories, similar research and development institutions or to pursue postdoctoral research in the field.
These students will also be among the first to complete IoT Security certification developed throughout the project that will cover principles related to cybersecurity, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and key technologies.
“An important goal for the CONCISE partner universities is to prepare an upper-tier cybersecurity workforce for the Department of Energy,” Chen explained. “We are targeting to have more than 100 graduates from underrepresented backgrounds enter the cybersecurity workforce by the end of 2026 and a significant number of them will be UTSA graduates.”
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