A $3.5 million grant will fund new scholarships at Binghamton University over the next five years for two dozen students who plan to join the workforce as cybersecurity professionals.
The National Science Foundation’s CyberCorps Scholarship for Service (SFS) program is designed to recruit and train the next generation of information technology experts and security managers to meet the needs of federal, state, local and tribal governments. In return for their scholarships, recipients agree to work after graduation in government cybersecurity positions for a period equal to the length of their scholarships.
At Binghamton, the SFS program will be overseen by faculty members from the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science. If it is deemed a success, the NSF could award further funding.
There were about 465,000 open positions in cybersecurity nationwide in 2021, according to the tech job-tracking database CyberSeek. The SFS program seeks to help fill the gap, with a special emphasis on attracting people of diverse backgrounds to the profession.
Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger sees the CyberCorps program as one that takes advantage of several of the campus’ core strengths.
“We know there’s a huge need in this field for highly trained experts,” he said. “Binghamton has a longstanding commitment to first-generation students and scholars from underrepresented minorities. We also have a robust set of course offerings and scholarship related to cybersecurity. It’s exciting to know that Binghamton will play a part in diversifying this essential workforce.”
Bahgat Sammakia, vice president for research, said Binghamton’s faculty members understand that research and teaching reinforce each other.
“This dynamic program will provide exceptional professional preparation for our students while also advancing Binghamton’s research related to information security,” he said. “I see in my own work how student contributions enable exciting discoveries and how strong mentorship can set up students to succeed in college and far beyond.”
In 2020, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security named Binghamton a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Research (CAE-R) through 2025. The designation recognizes the work at the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity (CIAC), led by computer science Associate Professor Ping Yang.
“Professor Yang’s vision, leadership and unwavering effort played an instrumental role in securing this grant,” said Professor Weiyi Meng, chair of the Computer Science Department. “It is probably the largest single grant in the history of the department, and it will have a big impact on the department, Watson College and Binghamton University for many years to come.”
Watson College Dean Krishnaswami “Hari” Srihari is proud of the faculty and staff who collaborated to seek the NSF funding, which is granted to fewer than 100 schools nationwide. He knows it will increase the visibility of Binghamton’s cybersecurity efforts in the academic community and the U.S. government.
“Our researchers and students are building the future by tackling our 21st-century problems head-on,” Srihari said. “Ensuring that our data remain safe is a key part of that future, and all of us will benefit from the knowledge shared here at Binghamton and Watson College.”
Serving as co-principal investigators on the NSF grant are Professor and Associate Chair Dmitry Ponomarev, Professor Kartik Gopalan and Associate Professor Aravind Prakash from the Computer Science Department, and Associate Professor Yu Chen from the ECE Department. Senior personnel include Distinguished Professor Jessica Fridrich (ECE), Professor Lijun Yin and Associate Professor Guanhua Yan (both CS).
Together, the faculty members cover a wide spectrum of research interests, from architectural support for security and software/systems security to steganography, artificial intelligence (AI)-based security and mobile security. The approach mirrors what Yang hopes will happen in government, corporate and nonprofit settings, especially when members of underserved communities earn their degrees and join the workforce.
“Building teams of cybersecurity professionals with a variety of skill sets brings different voices and perspectives to the table, which can help to improve our defense against a wider range of cyber threats,” Yang said.
The CyberCorps scholarship will focus at first on recruiting for Watson College graduate programs (including the 4+1 accelerated five-year program for earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree), where a cybersecurity curriculum is already in place. The first students to receive the assistance could be enrolled in fall 2022.
“We are going to build up slowly, to start with maybe two students in the first year and then go to five or six new students in each of the subsequent years,” Ponomarev said. “We also will integrate this program with other research activities, so students can be involved in current research grants. There will be synergy, especially with two departments working together.”
The SFS program’s requirement of government service in exchange for funding students’ education is one way for the public sector to compete with corporations that often can offer higher salaries, especially for entry-level positions.
“This program addresses the needs in the government sector,” Gopalan said, “by having motivated students who apply, get training, get a feel for the environment where you work for the government and also get the satisfaction of protecting the nation’s infrastructure.”
The CIAC team knows that having capable cybersecurity professionals in government is no longer optional, not only because of the amount of personal data being stored but also because lawmakers need to understand and pass legislation that protects citizens.
“The government cannot fall behind, because the virtual world and the physical world are starting to merge tighter and tighter,” Chen said. “Facebook’s Metaverse, Apple and Google are building a new world — what some people consider ‘version three’ of the internet. Private companies in the high-tech sector are preparing for this, and the government needs to be aware of those innovations.”
Prakash agreed. “Government professionals may need to take an adversarial position in some cases, and those battles are difficult if there are no professionals in that area,” he said, “Unlike industry professionals, government professionals have a fiduciary duty to the people of the United States and not to the shareholders of a particular company. Without talented individuals in the government, cybersecurity-related lawmaking and enforcement will greatly suffer. This grant helps fill this critical need.”