Phase II: Freshmen Research Experience

This phase of the project will focus on women attending community college and university programs that can feed into the Information Assurance field. These include computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, information technology, and business information systems. A concerted effort will be made to recruit these women to participate in paid Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer experience between their freshman and sophomore years.

Research problems in information security and computer forensics will be offered to groups of women working collaboratively in the program, allowing them to select something that interests them. Resources will be provided to allow them to fully pursue their projects with the goal of providing a complete solution by the end of the summer.

As a CAE institution that specializes in information security and computer forensics, MSU has no shortage of problems that can be pursued by these groups. In 2011, the women participating in this Phase II project spent the summer researching digital triage from a computer forensics perspective. Although this project was well received, it was apparent from feedback received from the women and the advisory board that a more free form approach, giving the women choices to choose from, and allowing them to self-select teams for the projects would be a better approach. This year's group will be given a set of challenging problems to choose from, so that they can be better fulfilled in the accomplishment of the project.

Forensics Tools

As an institution that provides free training to law enforcement and veterans in digital forensics, one of the efforts that MSU has undertaken is to evaluate existing tools for digital forensics.

One such project provided a comparison of commercial hardware imaging tools to provide potential users with data that would allow them to select the appropriate tool for their needs. Another activity that has been undertaken is to develop a set of tools to be provided to law enforcement and veteran students at no cost.

This endeavor is complicated by the fact that any tool used in digital forensics has to be developed with a high degree of quality and thoroughly tested before it is used. This gives rise to a large number of development and evaluation projects being available in this area. Students in Phase II will be given a set of problems in this area to choose from and will be able to select to work on any of these projects as part of their summer research effort.


Mississippi State University has a one-of-a-kind Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) laboratory in our Information Assurance laboratory. A picture of this laboratory is shown below. This laboratory has attracted a lot of attention from students and sponsors alike, and the systems represented (water systems, pipelines, refinery, airflow, and industrial process control) represent socially relevant problems that should interest women. Also, working with these systems provides significant opportunities for discovery learning. Ongoing research efforts have resulted in the discovery of vulnerabilities in the control system software used in numerous applications including control of nuclear power plants, not just in the US, but around the world. This laboratory facility will provide an opportunity for participants to work with systems that are currently in use in thousands of facilities nationwide.

SCADA Laboratory at MSU

Cyber Operations

Another activity that has been very popular among students, both male and female, is the end of semester "capture the flag" exercise in the Information and Computer Security class in the computer science and engineering curriculum. This exercise gives the students an opportunity to put into practice the theories learned during the semester in an intense 72 hour penetration test exercise. This is a team-based exercise where students plan and execute a penetration test against network based assets supervised by systems administrators. The system's administrators place "flags" at strategic locations on a set of servers, and the students must develop a plan to penetrate the network and retrieve the flags. Over the semesters that this exercise has been used, a number of winning teams have been comprised partially of women, and several women have applied for the SFS scholarship as a result of getting IA work in this class. The pictures below show teams led by women participating in the Capture the Flag exercise.

IA Students Engaged in Capture the Flag

The woman in the foreground of the first picture applied for the SFS scholarship to go to graduate school as a result of her experience in this class and now works for the federal government as a security engineer.

As a result of a new Department of Defense emphasis on cyber operations, our students have started a private student-led study group called the Cyber Operations Group. They meet twice per week to teach each other about cyber operations with both lectures and hands-on activities. These kinds of successful activities can be used in both summer camp experiences and summer research experiences to help get women excited about the IA field.