The Charger Blog

Student Scholars Present Cutting-Edge Cybersecurity Research

Members of the University’s Cyber Operative REsearch Scholars (CORES) program recently shared their innovative work with the University community, the public, and leaders in the field of cybersecurity.

May 11, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Steven Atilho
Steven Atilho ’22, a member of the University’s CORES program.

Steven Atilho ’22 has always been fascinated by the dark web. He recently conducted cutting-edge research that explored the dark web and cybersecurity, discovering ways to combat the growing issue of cyber criminals selling personally identifiable information, such as social security numbers and banking information.

A computer science major, Atilho is a member of the University’s Cyber Operative Research Scholars (CORES) program. As part of the program’s inaugural symposium, he recently presented his yearlong research project to the University community and to leaders in the field of cybersecurity.

“The symposium was a great opportunity to showcase my cumulative findings to government and military cyber leaders,” said Atilho, a first-generation student. “Since my work aims to assist law enforcement agencies in deanonymizing/prosecuting cyber criminals from the dark web, it was a wonderful opportunity to create connections with these leaders who may be interested to investigate my findings or replicate my methodology.”

Atilho is part of a group of students taking part in technical and cutting-edge cybersecurity research as part of the CORES program. Students were broken into two teams, one led by Vahid Behzadan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University’s Tagliatela College of Engineering, and the other by Ibrahim Baggili, Ph.D., the lead principle investigator of the program, Elder Family Chair, and director of the University's Connecticut Institute of Technology.

Karrie LeDuc-Santoro ’23 says being part of the program has, thus far, been the best experience she’s had at the University.

“I learned that it is important to trust your teammates and build a relationship with them that allows you to get the work done,” said LeDuc-Santoro, a cybersecurity and networks major. “I have gained many soft skills, such as speaking in front of crowds and confidence in my abilities, along with the technical aspects of learning.”

‘At the forefront of what we need to be doing as a country’

Funded by a grant of more than $250,000 from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the CORES program aims to meet the rising need for a highly trained science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce while also instilling an entrepreneurial mindset in students. Undergraduate students are paid an hourly wage for their work in the program, and the two graduate research assistants earn that plus a 75 percent scholarship for tuition.

The students’ experience in the program recently culminated in a symposium that the Connecticut Institute of Technology co-hosted with the Military Cyber Professionals Association (MCPA) that was supported by the ONR.

In addition to their research, students sought to develop an entrepreneurial mindset through online training, and they completed online Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) courses on topics such as collaborative research, mentoring, and data management.

“For me, what makes or breaks cybersecurity is the research and an entrepreneurial mindset, and this is what the students all experienced as part of CORES,” said Dr. Baggili at the symposium. “President Biden recently said in a speech that cybersecurity is at the forefront of what we need to be doing as a country, and I believe we’re on the right track with a program like CORES.”

‘This was amazing’

Providing a rigorous yearlong research residency opportunity, the program enables undergraduate and graduate students to take part in hands-on and technical research projects in groups while building strong cybersecurity research skills.

For Syrina Haldiman ’22 M.S., a candidate in the University’s graduate program in cybersecurity and networks and a graduate research assistant in the CORES program, the last year has provided an invaluable and unique learning experience.

Syrina Haldiman ’22 M.S. presents her research.

“This was amazing,” said Haldiman, who graduated from Mary Baldwin University last year when she was just 18 years old. “I have most enjoyed being able to work with and receive guidance from influential people in my field. I also learned technical skills, including how to write a research paper, and digital forensic processes that I would not otherwise learn until later in my career if it were not for this grant.”

‘Accept the challenges of hands-on research’

Dr. Michael Simpson, director of education and workforce at the ONR, attended the virtual presentations. He told the students he was very impressed by their research and presentations.

“You are part of a rather select group of people who have been approved to meet all the requirements of the program,” he said. “All of this is so that national security needs are provided for, to make sure that we have people being trained in research and being made ready to take up all the requirements that the nation needs to stay secure.”

Dr. Daniel “Rags” Ragsdale, the principal director for cyber in the Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering (Research & Technology), delivered the keynote address. He praised the CORES program for preparing students for critical work and for enabling them to get out of their comfort zones and develop as leaders.

Dr. Daniel Ragsdale delivered the keynote address.

“Research, I believe, is a tremendous vehicle for developing the minds of students,” he said. “The skills, knowledge, and abilities they develop will serve them well. As part of the program, important research is done that will unquestioningly move forward the boundaries of knowledge. Learning is not a passive activity. It’s most impactful to leave the bleachers and take to the field, to leave one’s comfort zone, and to accept the challenges of hands-on research. Students are not receptacles, they are combustible material.”

‘The importance of not limiting yourself and your research’

As part of the group research experience, students developed a proposal outlining their research project, then conducted research in teams, working in areas such as digital forensics, artificial intelligence security, and the applications of AI and machine learning to cybersecurity. In addition to presenting their research at the symposium, the groups will also submit their manuscripts for review to academic journals and conferences.

“Our CORES students have tackled problems at the core of the brave new world that we wake up to every day,” said Dr. Behzadan. “As a mentor and adviser, I really enjoyed working with them and guiding them through their research training and projects. We are very proud of how far our students have come in this program, and we are very proud of their accomplishments. Their projects are all worthy of more research.”

As part of the ceremony, two teams of students were recognized for their work. Cybersecurity and networks majors Nicholas Dubois ’24 and Alex Sitterer ’24 were honored along with national security major Keelan Carey ’22 and Rachel Blumenthal (a junior computer science major at Yale who was part of the program).

Keelan Carey
Keelan Carey ’22 presents his research.

Carey says he was fascinated and inspired by what he learned about the breadth and depth of the cybersecurity field, as well as the other cybersecurity research he learned about – so much that he is now considering pursuing his master’s degree in cybersecurity.

“Something that my team's adviser, Dr. Behzadan, instilled in us is the importance of not limiting yourself and your research,” said Carey. “He made it clear that while deadlines are an important part of planning and scheduling projects, they should never hold back your curiosity or the research you are conducting. This was a wonderful opportunity to represent the University and, hopefully, be a small part in securing future research grants so that there can be another CORES program.”