UA System programs prepare students for cybersecurity careers

Protecting the nation’s critical physical and digital assets from cyber attackers is an urgent global priority, and The University of Alabama System is pursuing this critical mission on multiple fronts.

The Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education at The University of Alabama in Huntsville is involved in wide ranging projects that examine the implications of an attack and potential defenses for power grids, oil refineries, shipping terminals, water storage systems and more.

UAH professors and students are working side by side on automotive cybersecurity projects, studying computerized features such as lane assist, collision avoidance, autonomous driving, and how they could be compromised.

Most projects call for simulations, since the infrastructure is too complex for real world testing that can be expensive. For the automotive work, students have developed a small circuit board that simulates a car’s gas pedal, brake pedal and dashboard displays, so they can create their own cyber attack on the vehicle.

The center’s clients include the National Security Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, utility companies and private firms.

UAH’s proximity to Huntsville’s large network of military, defense and space operations is a huge advantage, according to Dr. Tommy Morris, the center’s director.

“Being close to the Army and the other agencies in Huntsville is fantastic,” he said. “UAH researchers meet regularly with Army staff in person. No other university in the country has that advantage at Redstone Arsenal.”

Proximity benefits UAH students enrolled in cybersecurity programs with diverse internship and scholarship offers available, along with bright prospects for employment following graduation.

“There is a large demand for cybersecurity professionals now. Government agencies of all types are investing in cybersecurity research and workforce development programs like we have at UAH,” Dr. Morris said.

cybersecurity research
UAH’s Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education is involved in projects that examine the implications of a cyber attack on power grids, oil refineries, shipping terminals, and more (Image: UAH)

The National Institute for Cybersecurity Education says more than 200,000 cybersecurity jobs were advertised online last year. The organization, which tracks the openings by location, categorizes five different levels of need, and Huntsville is one of the most in-demand areas.

Dr. Morris said he sees that firsthand as he hears military officers and company executives in the Huntsville area talk about specific employment needs.

“Cybersecurity is one of the major unmet demands in the Huntsville economy right now, and these programs are designed to fulfill that workforce need,” he said.

Meanwhile, UAH is addressing the challenges of staying current in the ever-changing field of cybersecurity.

Dr. Tommy Morris is director of UAH’s Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education.

“We try to stay fundamental and years ahead of the market. Often, we are developing algorithms and implementing and testing ideas for cybersecurity technologies that don’t exist yet in the marketplace,” Dr. Morris said.

A challenge in cybersecurity research is holding on to experienced students to conduct the sensitive, complex projects, since they are in such high demand in the job market.

UAH’s answer to that problem is the Cyber Force Incubator, designed for students who are eager to jump into research early in their college career.

“We are taking students who are hungry to work during their freshman and sophomore years and letting them work on research projects early. These students are bright, energetic, and are making tangible contributions to our field at an early age,” Dr. Morris said.


Elsewhere in The University of Alabama System, similar cybersecurity research efforts range from personal digital privacy to the broader issues of supply chain management and security.

At The University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Security and Privacy In Emerging computing and networking Systems (SPIES) group conducts research on topics related to the security and privacy of emerging systems.

These systems range from mobile and wireless networks, such as those involving smartphones, sensors and RFID devices, to the Internet class of systems, such as online social networks.

Current SPIES group projects are centered around the secure association of wireless devices, web search and location privacy and secure storage in the cloud, among other topics.

Also at UAB, the SECuRE and Trustworthy computing Lab (SECRETLab) is dedicated to cutting-edge research on computer security, digital forensics, and big data. The lab’s projects focus on cloud security and privacy, mobile malware defenses, digital data waste, and other topics.

University of Alabama
Dr. David Mayhew is a researcher at The University of Alabama Cyber Institute. (Image: The University of Alabama)

The University of Alabama Cyber Institute has been refocusing its research and academic priorities, while adding staff to branch into supply chain risk management and secure architecture.

Reg Hyde, executive director of the Cyber Institute, said his group will continue to take advantage of existing strengths on campus including the colleges of Arts & Sciences, Engineering, and the Culverhouse College of Commerce, while pivoting to new areas to support UA’s research goals.

“We are concentrating on areas where there is tremendous interest or demand among the private sector or government, but where there is little work being done, particularly by universities,” Hyde said.

UA’s Culverhouse College of Commerce is home to the Marillyn A. Hewson Data Analytics Lab, made possible in 2017 by a $5 million gift by the Lockheed Martin CEO, an alumna of the university.

The lab supports Culverhouse’s education and research in cybersecurity and business-data intelligence.

“With the rapidly evolving fields of big-data analytics and cybersecurity, there will be strong demand for talent for many years to come,” Hewson said when the lab was announced. “With this gift, it is my hope that this institution will have the resources it needs to advance its innovative research and attract further support for its core mission of preparing students for the jobs of the future.”

University of Alabama
UA President Stuart R. Bell, left, Dr. Kay Palan, middle, dean of Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration, and Marillyn A. Hewson stand outside a data analytics lab following the announcement of a $5 million gift from Hewson in support of the College’s education and research in business-data intelligence and cybersecurity. (Image: University of Alabama)