Research drives cybersecurity innovation, inspiration in Southwest Virginia
Tamp down one cyberattack, and another pops up — threatening both livelihoods and lives across industries and sectors. As the urgency of cybersecurity reaches a higher pitch, the southwest node of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI SWVA) gathered on Virginia Tech’s campus in late October. The event allowed collaborators to meet in person and advance cybersecurity strategies throughout the region and the commonwealth.
CCI Southwest Virginia is one of the four regional nodes of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), founded in 2019 to establish Virginia as a global center of excellence at the intersection of cybersecurity, autonomy, and intelligence. CCI marshals a network of researchers from institutions of higher education across Virginia, along with industry partners, to build an ecosystem of cyber research, innovation, and workforce development.
CCI’s Southwest region, led by Virginia Tech, comprises 14 institutions of higher education, including Virginia Military Institute, Radford University, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, New River Community College, and Virginia Western Community College.
“I’m particularly impressed by the Southwest node’s breadth and depth of strategy and activities,” said Dan Sui, Virginia Tech’s vice president for research and innovation. “We have researchers working in agriculture, quantum, 5G, energy systems, drones, across multiple disciplines, organizations, and colleges — the scope demonstrates the true value of convergence research.”
Convergence research, as defined by the National Science Foundation, refers to deep, cross-disciplinary research driven by a specific and compelling problem.
Investigating core technology
“Here in Southwest Virginia, we anchor our efforts in research that drives cybersecurity innovation and talent development,” explained Gretchen Matthews, director of CCI SWVA and Virginia Tech professor of mathematics.
With more than 75 researchers engaged in more than 35 different programs, CCI SWVA research supports what Matthews describes as a “core technology base” to design fast, secure, customizable communications systems. The core areas include NextG technology, quantum information theory, cryptography, defense in-depth, and artificial intelligence/machine learning.
Applications with impact
While advancing these core technology areas, the researchers are also building out multidisciplinary applications with resounding impacts on everyday life —from protecting the power grid and agriculture systems to securing self-driving vehicles and satellites.
For instance, Jon Darab, operations director for the Global Center for Automotive Performance Simulation, is working with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to improve automated driving system safety through sensor data.
“Sensors are the eyes and ears of the vehicle,” said Darab, “They’re vulnerable to attack.”
Bad weather or intentional spoofing can interfere with a sensor, so Darab’s research team is developing a detection algorithm to identify when the sensor has been compromised. “The algorithm will improve the reliability and safety of autonomous vehicles,” explained Darab.
Sophia Economou, Virginia Tech professor of physics, is digging into the novel concept of secure quantum networks. Tiffany Drape, assistant professor of agricultural, leadership, and community education, is exploring ways to implement cyberbiosecurity into agriculture and life sciences education.
CCI Executive Director Luiz DaSilva encouraged the gathered researchers to keep thinking big: “Multidisciplinary research allows us to think about cybersecurity broadly, not just as a computer science or computer engineering matter, but as something that touches virtually every discipline,” he said.
Sparking, stoking innovation
CCI research not only fuels core technology development and mobilizes applications, but it also spurs researchers and graduate students to consider how their work can jump the bounds of the lab into the marketplace, said Matthews.
To expedite commercialization, CCI seeks to demystify the process of moving a product or prototype from concept to market.
“We want to swarm resources around people who are looking to make more impact with their research through commercialization,” said Mark Mondry, CCI SWVA associate director for partnerships and engagement and the director of LAUNCH, Center for New Ventures at Virginia Tech.
Daphne Yao, computer science professor, indicated future commercialization possibilities for her work detecting insider threats, which come from inside an organization via someone with authorized access.
“There’s a huge market for solutions to insider threats,” said Yao. “These internal attacks are underreported and hard to detect because cybersecurity professionals lack the right tools.”
Inspiring the cyber work force of tomorrow
The breadth and depth of the cybersecurity research ongoing in Southwest Virginia is drawing students to hands-on opportunities. As of fall 2021, nearly 200 students were working directly on CCI research or engaged in cybersecurity internships or training programs. These experiences equip students with highly specialized cybersecurity skills, preparing them to meet the growing demand for cybersecurity talent in the commonwealth and beyond.
CCI also supports professional development and training opportunities for K-12 educators and other learners. For instance, the Security Clearance Ready Certificate program, offered in collaboration with Virginia Tech’s Hume Center for National Security and Technology, prepares students for the security clearance process, making them more eligible for jobs that require it.
Training, learning, investigating, and innovating, CCI’s momentum enriches the cybersecurity ecosystem regionally and advances the state as a global leader in cybersecurity.