Faculty and student team examines cyber security threats, explores options to protect nation's technology infrastructures

Dr. Jessie Walker, Tarsheika West, & Kierra Smith

Tarsheika West and Kierra Smith don't have to go far to see where their interest in cyber security can be practically applied. They can look right in their own back yard, the Gulf Coast region, where Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005 and left the region in chaos. And, of course, they also can see the significant impact the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had on people along the gulf.

West and Smith recently completed an eye-opening summer research experience at the Center for Natural Disasters, Coastal Infrastructure and Emergency Management (NDCIEM) at Jackson State (Miss.) University. West, Smith and faculty mentor Dr. Jessie Walker of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff were all participants in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team Program for Minority Serving Institutions. The program, which is managed for DHS by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, aims to increase and enhance the scientific leadership at Minority Serving Institutions in research areas that support the mission and goals of DHS.

Emergency management, communication and response resources are often rendered ineffective or stretched to the limit during times of such crises. The research at NDCIEM enhances the nation's ability to safeguard populations, properties and economies as it relates to the consequences of catastrophic natural disasters. The students’ work included analyzing cyber-security threats and concerns both at home and abroad and contributing to cyber-security reports on threats such as malware, power grids, viruses, banking and infrastructure attacks. These reports are being developed for the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Poland and Germany.

“This project is very important,” West said. “It’s really about helping people and showing them they will be safe.”

West and Kierra Smith, both undergraduates at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, plan to use their work on the emergency management and cyber-infrastructure security research project as springboards towards careers in cyber security.

Dr. Walker said attention to the field of cyber security is lagging far behind. “Surprisingly, very few studies have attempted to tap into the vast disciplines of cyber security and emergency management to discover new and relevant theoretical models that may lead to practical solutions for handling emergency management tasks and knowledge sharing that depends on cyber infrastructure resources,” Walker said.

The Walker team examined existing cyber-security models used to document each threat and explored new cyber-security solutions and the future direction of cyber-security research and development in their reports, which are expected to be completed sometime this fall.

“At the heart of all modern emergency management activities are cyber infrastructure resources, which consist of computer systems, data and information management, advanced instruments, visualization environments and cyberspace all linked together by software and complex networks," said Walker. “Without these resources, emergency management within the United States would be rendered ineffective.”

Both West and Smith, who are the first members of their families to attend college, said they plan on making the most of their opportunities.

“I am very proud to be the first to go [to college] in my family,” Smith said, a senior who is majoring in computer science and has his eye on graduate school. “I always wanted to work for the government and would like to do security analysis.”

West, a computer science major, likewise has lofty goals.

“I am extremely proud that I have crossed boundaries and been able to attend college,” she said. “I’m the first in my family to go to college and it’s an extreme blessing. I will be going to graduate school and have thought about trying to get a Ph.D. as well.”

Walker said both have bright futures in a field that is in its critical stages of development. "Both students have developed academically and personally into mature individuals ready for all facets of modern research-oriented careers,” he said. “Emergency management is in its infancy in implementing cyber-situational awareness. This project helped in the evolutionary process by enhancing the current research at the NDCIEM, developing faculty research capabilities at a teaching-oriented university in this arena and increasing the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to deal with new multidimensional threats.”