Honors College Students Gain Valuable Experience in DoD Cyber Scholarship Program

Posted on 9/11/2020 8:19:25 AM

While many students complete internships during their time at IUP, few can say that the details are, quite literally, confidential.

IUP senior Rodney Cesar, a computer science major with a cyber security concentration and minors in criminology and math, just finished a research-based internship focused on cloud computing for the United States Department of Defense—and that’s just about all that he’s at liberty to share.

The DoD officially recognizes IUP as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense. As selected applicants from one of these esteemed universities, Cesar and five other IUP students were awarded full-ride scholarships through the DoD Cyber Scholarship Program (CySP). This scholarship pays for books and a laptop of their choice, as well as their full tuition and fees.

The DoD’s ultimate goal, according to Cesar, is to bring capable students—the “best of the best”—to fill a shortage in the cybersecurity field at a national level.

Kaishia Ieraci, another IUP senior computer science major and winner of the DoD Cyber Scholarship, says that she “gained a lot of experience in software development” as a member of the program. Ieraci is on the software engineering track within her major at IUP and has a minor in cyber security.

As a part of the program, the students begin research of their choice. Cesar’s work last fall was titled “Machine-to-machine authentication and anomaly detection in the IoT,” comparing lightweight encryption methods; and Ieraci’s addressed “Training a neural network to extract context from emojis in Tweets.” She continued the “machine learning”-related work of a former IUP CySP recipient, Daniel Richmond. Ieraci explained, “The goal of the research is to get the computer to take the emojis and figure out what the sentiment of them is—positive, neutral, or negative” using a Naive Bayes algorithm. 

CySP concludes with an internship with any number of agencies within the DoD. The sorting process is something of a “football draft,” according to Cesar, to match students with departments that align with their future career goals. Although coronavirus concerns forced both Cesar and Ieraci to complete their internships almost entirely remotely, Cesar feels that the security clearances that come with the job and his recent role within the DoD have positioned him well for the first few years of his career.

Ieraci’s internship stands out as a uniquely beneficial part of her time at IUP. Regarding the necessity of moving fully online, she says confidently, “we made it work.” Her work used Agile and Scrum software, which she says fostered a sense of “tight-knit teamwork and fast development” as she and her teammates were forced to “make changes on the fly” to create their final digital robots.

“The experience was really, really cool,” she said.

Following their internship and graduation, students serve one year with the DoD for each year they received the scholarship. After their time working with the DoD, these students can choose what Cesar refers to as a “smooth transition” to a government career in cybersecurity, or pursue a number of diverse opportunities in the private sector.

This is the goal for Cesar. Robotics, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing are interests that Cesar says he is “hoping to explore a lot more” after graduation. More than likely, after serving one and a half years with the DoD, he will transition to the private sector, possibly even opening his own business one day. 

Ieraci likes that, with the many agencies under the DoD, “I can pick what I’m interested in.” Later, she may shift into another dream career: programming video games.

Alongside CySP, IUP provides many opportunities for students to get hands-on experience in cybersecurity. Between IUP’s Cyber Security club, competing at Hackathon, completing their internships, and the other opportunities that their major at IUP has offered them, Cesar and Ieraci are looking toward the future with valuable experience in tow.

Regardless of where they end up, Cesar and Ieraci have clearly gained a lot from this opportunity. Ieraci says, “I’ve learned a lot about cybersecurity and software development through CySP, and I’m really glad for that.” 

For more information, visit the DoD Cyber Scholarship Program.

—Written by Amy Kukula

Cook Honors College