Training the next generation of cybersecurity experts

Training the next generation of cybersecurity experts
Tuesday, October 20, 2020

When graduate student Thomas McCullough was just 11 years old, he already was proficient at computer programming. So, it’s no surprise a decade later, he is preparing to join the next generation of cybersecurity experts. 

“Studying computer science was a natural fit for me going into college,” he said.

Thomas McCulloughMcCullough’s focus on programming paid off. After completing a bachelor’s degree in computer science from UNC Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) last spring and an internship with the Fortune 100 company, Honeywell, as a product security engineer, he enrolled in CCI’s M.S. in Cybersecurity program with the support of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) CyberCorps Scholarship for Service.

For two decades, CCI has partnered with CyberCorps, which "increases and strengthens the cadre of federal information assurance professionals that protect the government's critical information infrastructure.” After earning undergraduate or graduate degrees, participating UNC Charlotte students begin cybersecurity careers with the U.S. government for a period equal to their scholarship.

One of three universities in North Carolina — among 78 select institutions nationwide — to offer CyberCorps scholarships, UNC Charlotte has graduated approximately 124 students in the CyberCorps program since its inception. Since 2012, the program at UNC Charlotte has received nearly $4.5 million from the NSF for scholarship support.

Many of the program’s alumni have launched their careers with federal agencies in Washington, D.C., and beyond. McCullough, recently featured among Charlotte Inno’s 2020 Under 25, intends to be one of them. 

Currently engaged in graduate research that centers on finding new applications for innovative and emerging technologies to protect Americans in cyberspace, McCullough has started the service portion of his CyberCorps participation as a cybersecurity engineer for the Defense Information Systems Agency within the U.S. Department of Defense.  

“Our agency supports and maintains information systems for the U.S. military and its mission partners in other parts of the federal government,” he said. “My team ensures the availability and security of those systems using new and innovative technologies.”

Origins of the program

The University’s partnership with CyberCorps began, according to Bei-Tseng (Bill) Chu, professor of software and information systems, before the cybersecurity field had its name. 

“We strategically selected cybersecurity as a field of focus during the first phase of the Internet boom,” said Chu, who collaborated early with William J. Tolone, CCI associate dean and professor. “It enabled us to build expertise and infrastructure ahead of many other institutions.”

In 1999, University leaders first learned about the National Security Administration's new initiative that recognized Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance, a government description that eventually led to the now well-known title, cybersecurity.

“We applied and were recognized in 2000,” said Chu. “We were well among the early group of universities to offer the scholarship program in the U.S.”

Chu was at the defense department’s Fort Meade, Maryland, facility to formally receive the recognition on Sept. 11, 2001.

“As we gathered for coffee before the session began, we saw the attacks on Twin Towers on television,” he said. “Needless to say, the recognition ceremony was canceled. In any case, it was an honor for UNC Charlotte’s potential to contribute to the national cybersecurity pipeline to be noted.” 

Since that recognition, CyberCorps participation has continued to set UNC Charlotte apart.

 “We were ahead of the curve,” Chu said. “Our focus on hands-on learning led to our student team winning the first national collegiate cyberdefense competition in 2006, even beating teams from military academies.”

Growing in importance

Heather Lipford, interim associate dean of research and professor of software and information systems, has joined Chu as co-director of UNC Charlotte's CyberCorps SFS program.

“Nearly 80 universities across the country participate in CyberCorps,” she said. “But what sets UNC Charlotte apart is the depth and breadth of the education that we offer. This is a testament to how long we have focused on cybersecurity. And we continue to innovate by constantly updating our curriculum.”

Another advantage to UNC Charlotte’s CyberCorps program longevity is the number of alumni to whom current students have access.

“Our alums are able to share their experiences and offer advice on pursuing careers in the public sector,” Lipford said.

As cybersecurity has grown as a field, its importance has become top-of-mind for field experts as well as average citizens as reports of data vulnerability dominate the news. 

“It is just as relevant and perhaps more so in the minds of people as they are more aware of how cybersecurity impacts our daily lives,” Chu said. “When we started, only people in leadership positions in sensitive government agencies and large financial service institutions were aware of cybersecurity’s importance.”

For McCullough, his UNC Charlotte experience allows him ambitious career plans.

“I look forward to continuing to pursue a career in this functional role that plays to my strengths,” he said. “I have also genuinely enjoyed working inside the U.S. government in a position where I am focused on protecting the men and women who protect us. I am excited to see where the future takes me. “