DHS interns gain experience in cybersecurity through CIRI

Each year the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) partners with its University Centers of Excellence to offer college faculty and students from Minority Serving Institutions the opportunity to gain experience with DHS research and build the future pool of scientists. This year, two Summer Research Teams, each consisting of a faculty member and two students, were welcomed to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus by the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI).

CIRI Interns

“We were lucky and honored to host two research teams this year,” said Randy Sandone, CIRI executive director. “We’ve learned a lot having them here, and hopefully they are leaving having learned something from us.”

The teams were paired up for the summer to both give students the opportunity to experience cybersecurity research and to offer real contributions to the work. The students chosen to participate in this internship experience understand the importance of this type of research.

“Cybercrimes are a bigger issue now than they’ve ever been,” Said Aiyande McGill, a criminal justice and law enforcement major from Benedict College in South Carolina, of Aiyande McGillthe internship. “This summer, I wanted to learn the main issues faced by people working with cybersecurity. I was excited to work with CIRI because it can be hard to get a job with Homeland Security and I would like to work for the federal government someday.”

By working with scientists who currently conduct research with the federal government, McGill and his fellow interns were able to experience what their dream careers could look like. McGill and fellow Benedict College student Sarah Iman Dornik worked with Sybil Rosado of Benedict and Sandone on the project “Building the Human Firewall: Strengthening the Resilience of our Nation’s Critical Infrastructure by Leveraging the Cyber Secure Dashboard to Create a Sociocultural Cybersecurity Awareness Framework.” This project looked at how taking human experiences and culture into account when designing cybersecurity training would be beneficial.

Sarah Dornik“We’re looking at how to change culture for the digital age,” said Dornik. “Ninety-five percent of successful cyberattacks are caused by human error. We need to add security common sense to the cyber world.”

The other project, “Modeling Microgrid Resiliency under Grid Disturbances”, was led by Radian Belu, an associate professor electrical engineering from Southern University and Alfonso Valdes, principal research scientist for the Information Trust Institute at Illinois. This group included two interns from Southern University A&M at Baton Rouge. Trinity Reed, an electrical engineering and computer science student and DeShon Swafford, a material science engineering graduate student.

For Reed, an experience like the one she received this summer with CIRI has been a long time coming.

"I remember my mom would take me to engineering summer camps when I was little. That's what really got me interested in engineering Trinity Reedand cyber security," said Reed, "I would really like to work for NASA someday."

The project Reed and Swafford worked on involved keeping a microgrid running in a secure and reliable fashion despite threats from weather or other outside influences. The project, and overall CIRI experience was invaluable to these students.

“It has made me a more timely and organized person,” said Swafford of the experience. “I met a lot of great people and made a lot of connections.”

DeShon SwaffordWhen they weren’t working on research, the students had the opportunity to explore the local area, attend lectures on a variety of topics, and meet other interns staying on campus for the summer. This added element to the internship will help the students in ways outside of the classroom.

“It’s really important for students from smaller campuses to go to a larger university to broaden their horizons,” said Andrea Whitesell, CIRI senior program manager. “While here the students have been offered a lot of opportunities through CIRI and the Grainger College of Engineering that will help them in their future careers.”

For more information about the internship and to learn how to apply for future summers, visit the DHS Education Programs website.