Loyola’s Department of Computer Science Receives $3.8 Million Grant for Cybersecurity Program

The Department of Computer Science was awarded a $3.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation in December to fund CyberRamblers, a scholarship and training program for cybersecurity majors

Loyola’s Department of Computer Science received a $3.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, in December to fund scholarships and training for cybersecurity majors.

The CyberRamblers program will select 20 undergraduate applicants over five years to be awarded a two-year scholarship, stipend for living expenses and research opportunities starting in the upcoming fall semester.

Dr. Eric Chan-Tin, associate professor of computer science and director of the Loyola Center for Cybersecurity, said applicants must be incoming third-years and can have any major but are required to switch their major to cybersecurity if selected. The program has a GPA requirement of 3.5 in applicants’ classes for their major, according to Chan-Tin.

Chan-Tin said he expects the application to open online after the scholarship website is updated within the next couple weeks.

Recipients will be awarded a full scholarship including hands-on training, research projects, student clubs, competitions and attendance at cybersecurity conferences, according to Chan-Tin, who served as the grant’s principal investigator and will oversee the program’s implementation.

Principal investigators are responsible for brainstorming and planning projects for which a grant is being sought and writing a proposal to the organization offering the scholarship.

The scholarship amount will vary per student depending on other merit-based scholarships they already have, but Chan-Tin said it’ll likely total about $150,000 between tuition coverage, a $27,000 stipend for living expenses and a $6,000 annual allowance for other expenses like supplies and travel.

Chan-Tin said CyberRamblers’ opportunities will be distinct from regular cybersecurity courses because they provide access to the industry’s latest tools which are often unaffordable and chances to dive deeper into research projects than semester-long classes allow for. He said one example is the ability for students to train on firewall technology which requires a subscription.

“This is something that we cannot do in a classroom because we don’t have the money to buy the firewall, that’s like, thousands of dollars,” Chan-Tin said. “So having access to that, the training, the actual thing to play with, is something unique.”

Dr. Yas Silva, associate professor of computer science and Graduate Program Director for Data Science, said research projects under the program will ideally intersect with the individual interests of students in addition to the goals of the lab and faculty.

Silva, who worked as a co-principal investigator with Chan-Tin, said CyberRamblers’ purpose is to provide students with skills, research experiences and other opportunities which will help them start their careers while addressing the nationwide need for cybersecurity expertise.

Chan-Tin said CyberRamblers will also provide training in soft skills such as writing a resume and mock interviews. Additionally, it will aim to provide other job-related opportunities like career fairs and internships, according to Silva.

The grant is part of the federal government’s Scholarship for Service program in which students who receive NSF funds commit to working a government job in the relevant field for a period equivalent to the length of their scholarship, according to the program’s website

Chan-Tin said the grant requires students to work in the executive branch for two years after graduation, and those who don’t follow through on this commitment have to repay the full scholarship amount.

Students who receive the scholarship can’t take other federal financial aid, but they can still get merit-based scholarships, according to Chan-Tin.

Part of Scholarship for Service’s mission is to provide opportunities to students who are underrepresented in the field of cybersecurity, according to the NSF’s website

Silva, who’s the faculty advisor of Loyola’s Minorities in Tech student organization, said inclusivity was a key principle in his objectives for the program and the proposal sets a goal of at least 50% of students coming from marginalized groups.

Mahnoor Aftab, a third-year cybersecurity major who created Loyola’s chapter of the Women in Cybersecurity organization, said she was impacted by the lack of women and minority students in her classes.

“It was a very lonely experience, that you were sitting in your class and when you look around you can’t see people like you,” Aftab said. “And it’s hard when you go up in the field like that to stay for long because it can be very daunting.”

Aftab said she has found the environment with Women in Cybersecurity to be eye-opening for students coming from different backgrounds and experiences, and she thinks the scholarships will help accomplish the same goal.

Silva said the interdisciplinary nature of the field means in addition to requiring people with core computational and technical skills, it also requires the expertise of those specializing in other fields including forensic analysis, social media analysis, the social sciences and engineering.

“The needs of cybersecurity appear in many areas because, of course, there can be various types of attacks, various types of vulnerabilities that cybersecurity professionals have to consider,” Silva said. “So having the expertise at Loyola from people coming from all different areas, I think helps in building a program and also an experience for our students.”

Loyola was awarded the grant in December following student and faculty interviews conducted by the NSF on its campus tour in October, and funds were disbursed Jan. 1, with students expected to be awarded scholarships in August or September, Chan-Tin said.

“The amount is huge,” Chan-Tin said. “In comparison, before this the highest grant I got was probably around $500,000, so it’s an order of magnitude bigger.” 

The NSF provided Loyola with a $390,000 grant in 2022 to fund research for the BullyBlocker project, which seeks to investigate and prevent cyberbullying, according to the department’s website.

Madeline Moran, a graduate student studying computer science with a concentration in cybersecurity who was interviewed by the NSF, said the interview assessed her perspective on the department in its current state and its potential to offer greater educational opportunities in the future.

Aftab was also interviewed by the NSF and said the organization sought information from student interviewees on their own research experience as well as Loyola’s cybersecurity curriculum more broadly.

Moran, who’s been doing cybersecurity lab research for three years, said she was overjoyed when the grant was awarded and hopes it’ll help the department’s lab environment continue to grow.

“We worked so hard on getting that grant, and it means so much to what is really a developing department and developing area,” Moran said. “I really couldn’t have named any other cybersecurity people when I joined. I declared in 2019 and I didn’t know any other cybersecurity majors. And then five years later we’ve got this amazing NSF grant.”
The cybersecurity industry has a significant workforce demand, with 663,434 job openings in the United States and a shortage of 3.4 million professionals worldwide, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Featured Image by Ryan Pittman / The Phoenix

Colin Hart

Colin Hart