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National Science Foundation's $4.6 million grant will train new cybersecurity talent in Arkansas

The best and brightest Arkansans will be trained as cybersecurity professionals due to a five-year, $4.63 million award from the National Science Foundation that will enable a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at the University of Arkansas to recruit, educate and train top students.

The program will provide the knowledge and tools necessary to protect network and computer systems in three critical industries – cybersecurity, transportation security, and critical infrastructure security.

“The federal agencies that support these industries – all critical to our nation’s security and economic health – understand that new cybersecurity challenges are met with an increasingly insufficient security workforce,” said Jia Di, professor of computer science and computer engineering and principal investigator for the program. “But people at these agencies also understand that our university, with its specific research strengths, is uniquely positioned to expand the pool of highly skilled professionals who can address these challenges.”

The “Cyber-Centric Multidisciplinary Security Workforce Development” program will draw on faculty research expertise in the departments of Computer Science and Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Industrial Engineering. Faculty members will design curriculum focused on cybersecurity in the areas of computer and information systems, transportation and critical infrastructure with specific focus on the electrical power grid. The program will provide job training and research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students, and all students will be offered internships at government agencies, where additional training could lead to job placement.

The program will focus on attracting students from underrepresented populations and will partner with Northwest Arkansas Community College to open paths for its students to pursue bachelors’ and advanced degrees at the university.

The program will address a national shortage of a highly skilled cybersecurity professionals. Over a one-year period, from September 2017 to August 2018, for example, there were more than 300,000 open cybersecurity jobs in the United States, Di said. Professionals at these companies cited lack of education as the reason for this shortage. To qualify for these jobs, students must understand not only computer systems, networks and software, but also data storage protection, cryptography, malware and software vulnerabilities, as well as the nature of cyber-crimes and other threats to infrastructure.
The Program

Led by the Arkansas Security Research and Education Institute, which Di directs, the “Cyber-Centric Multidisciplinary Security Workforce Development”program will include investigators affiliated with several U of A research centers – Center for Information Security and Reliability, Mack-Blackwell Transportation Center and Cybersecurity Center for Secure Evolvable Energy Delivery Systems. Students will conduct research at these centers.

Co-principal investigators for the program are Brajendra Panda, professor of computer science and computer engineering; Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering; Dale Thompson, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering; and Chase Rainwater, associate professor of industrial engineering.
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