UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team of students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology is helping to put Penn State’s cybersecurity-related programs in the national spotlight following a second place finish at the National Cyber Analyst Challenge (NCAC), which concluded April 12-13.
It is the third consecutive year that the University’s team reached the finals of the competition that aims to support the development of the nation’s best students pursuing cyber-related degrees. Seniors David Brilliant, Staton Harris, Eric Hite and Frank Longo, and junior Matt Ruff represented Penn State.
“To be able to put Penn State's cybersecurity-related programs on the map helps show that the school is headed in the right direction with what they are teaching us,” said Brilliant.
“Cybersecurity is such a new field that can be difficult to navigate,” added Longo. “There are so many diverse skills involved with this industry, and to have the ability to attach additional value to Penn State’s already great cybersecurity program is fulfilling.”
This year’s challenge, which consisted of three phases of competition over the course of several months, pitted teams from universities nationwide. In phase I, teams analyzed 20 GB of data from a fictitious hack and produced a report of their findings. In phase II, students participated in a series of virtual workshops related to effectively remedying and mitigating threats and focused their presentation for C-level executives. In the third and final phase, the 10 teams of finalists traveled to Philadelphia. They received more than 90 GB of data to analyze in six hours and presented their findings to a team of top-level executives from Leidos, Comcast/NBC Universal, Pfizer and Vanguard.
While team participants utilized technical skills they learned in the classroom, they also cited “soft skills” that they’ve learned at Penn State as giving them an edge over the competition.
“One of the most important skills needed for this challenge was effective communication,” said Harris. “In IST we spend a great deal of time working on presentations and technical writing in addition to learning more technical skills.”
Nick Giacobe, assistant professor of IST and the team’s faculty adviser, explained that the Penn State students learned about various forensic tools they’d need to complete the challenge as part of the IST curriculum. He said they also spent some of their own time and effort to explore additional resources they didn’t previously have experience with to help them in the NCAC.
“It’s their tenacity to continue to add to their technical skillset beyond what we teach them in the classroom that made the difference,” he said.
The opportunity to apply those skills in real-world situations, like those presented at the NCAC, will position Penn State IST students for success after graduation.
“This challenge is almost identical to what you would be doing in the field of incident response, but the skills learned will certainly translate to any cybersecurity career,” said Longo.
Brilliant explained that the six-hour time limit for the final phase of the challenge was, in fact, challenging, but a great preparation for a real-life scenario.
“In the real world, if the company I worked for experienced this situation, we would be racing the clock as well,” he noted.
Giacobe reiterated that each team member's career will greatly benefit from the time spent in the challenge.
“I expect that each of these students will continue on to very different cyber careers, each matching their own interests. This is already evident by their immediate job offers and post-graduation plans,” he said. “However, I do expect that they will all be able to analyze technical cybersecurity data and to be able to present incident-related issues to decision makers in their respective organizations.”