July 28, 2014
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A dynamic introduction to cybersecurity

Lawrence Livermore's Celeste Matarazzo was attending a cybersecurity conference when she was struck with a realization: The field of cybersecurity had a diversity problem.

"It's about more than racial or gender diversity -- it's about diversity of thought. Both cybercrime and cybersecurity are only limited by imagination, and we as a nation can't be secure without a diverse set of problem solvers to counter the cyber threat,"Matarazzo noted.

No stranger to educational outreach, she speculated that a fun yet practical introduction to cybersecurity might encourage more students to pursue careers in the discipline. In 2009, with Laboratory support, she established a Cyber Defenders summer internship program to provide hands-on training to potential future cyber security experts. She now shares program leadership duties with Lawrence Livermore's Evi Dube. As intended, Cyber Defenders attracts a varied and talented assortment of scholars. This summer's 30 participants, selected from a pool of 580 applicants, include undergraduates, graduate students and even professors who represent science, engineering and humanities programs at institutions across the nation.

Through the program, interns develop skills in areas such as intrusion detection and prevention, network monitoring and analysis algorithms and anomaly detection and machine learning. Working closely with their mentors, students complete a research project and share their results through a presentation and at a poster session. They also attend lectures and seminars, participate in individual and group exercises, and explore new technologies that can be applied to computer security.

"Our goals for the program are to excite people about the range of activities available in cyber security, to ensure that they leave the program with really strong skills, and to build a pipeline of skilled candidates for jobs here, at other national laboratories and in government services." Matarazzo said. "We want to give students the depth and hands-on training they might not get if enrolled in a standard computer science program."

While Cyber Defenders is a technical internship, it also includes role-playing and debate exercises and this year even a class in legal policy, taught by one of the three participating university professors.

One of the highlights of the summer is the Tracer Fire competition, which was held from July 22 to 24 at the High Performance Computing Innovation Center on the Livermore Valley Open Campus. Aided by sugar, caffeine and camaraderie, teams race to complete a series of computer security challenges that test skills such as code breaking and network engineering. Just as cybersecurity professionals must continually adapt to remain a step ahead of cyber attackers, the teams must adjust their strategies in response to simulated events and evolving information. What makes the event unique, Matarazzo notes, is its multi-institutional nature. Interns from Sandia National Laboratories' New Mexico campus helped to develop the scenarios and lead the competition, while interns from the Laboratory and Sandia California and visitors from Charleston, South Carolina's Lowcountry Tech Academy competed in mixed teams.

LLNL's Darren Lynch, a Tracer Fire team coach, observed: "Even if you're familiar with the technologies involved, Tracer Fire is still challenging. You have to incorporate different types of thinking to complete the problems." His teammate, Sandia intern Tim Schulz, added: "It helps that we're working in teams. Each of our team members approaches the problems in different ways."

Whether Cyber Defender alums go on to careers at the Laboratory or other national labs, as some already have, or they choose other public or private sector positions, Matarazzo hopes that they will keep the connections they have made through the internship program. "The program provides a lot of bonding opportunities," she says. "Students sit together, socialize together and work together. Our hope is the students will form a cohort group that they will retain as they continue into other stages of their careers. These connections could prove invaluable as a career resource."