Scholarship recipients will focus on cybersecurity training and research at UCF. Photo credit: Adobe Stock

NSF Awards UCF $2.9 Million to Train Next Generation of Cybersecurity Defenders

By: Robert H. Wells on

The University of Central Florida has been awarded a nearly $2.9 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to provide cybersecurity scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students.

Scholarship recipients will focus on cybersecurity training and research at UCF, and after graduation, must work for a federal, state, local, or tribal government organization in a position related to cybersecurity for a period equal to the length of the scholarship.

The award comes at a time when cyber threats are becoming more prevalent, from stolen customer information to the hacking of government data and more recently, breaching the security of a Florida water plant.

“UCF has tremendous strengths in cybersecurity education and research, with growing recognition thanks to the excellence of our students and faculty, initiatives championed by UCF Board Chair Beverly Seay, and awards like this grant,” says UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “We are so proud to be able to continue to help our students graduate with the critical skills and knowledge needed by employers and our nation to help safeguard against growing digital threats.”

UCF is a powerhouse for cyber defense programs and is designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education and a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Research.

“A world dependent on technology creates opportunities, but it also makes us vulnerable to cyber-attacks,” says U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who represents Florida’s 7th congressional district. “These federal investments will help UCF train the next generation of cyber professionals right here in Central Florida — creating jobs in our community and helping defend our nation against dangerous cyber threats.”

The five-year grant is through NSF’s CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program, and the first scholarships will be awarded starting with the Fall 2021 cohort. A total of 22 undergraduate and graduate, both master’s and doctoral, students will be awarded scholarships over the next five years. More details will be shared with the community as the program is finalized.

NSF announced the grants today, which were awarded to six universities nationwide, including UCF. The six will join NSF’s 78 current CyberCorps Scholarship for Service universities.

“This award shows the national recognition of UCF and the quality and breadth of the UCF cybersecurity program,” says Yan Solihin, director of UCF’s Cyber Security and Privacy Cluster and professor in UCF’s Department of Computer Science. Solihin is a co-investigator on the award with Cliff Zou, an associate professor in UCF’s Department of Computer Science and the award’s principal investigator.

“The opportunity to cultivate their learning and research in cybersecurity, privacy and digital forensics will attract even more high-quality students into our UCF program,” says Zou.

Solihin says the CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program is in line with the mission of the cluster for ‘excellence at scale,’ or pursuing quantity without sacrificing quality, in cybersecurity and privacy research and education.

UCF’s Cyber Security and Privacy Cluster started in 2017, currently includes eight faculty members collectively advising one postdoctoral researcher, 45 doctoral students, four master’s students, and 17 undergraduate students. In the past two years, the cluster has raised more than $10 million in external grants to support its research and education activities, both from government funding agencies as well as from industry partners, such as Intel and Sophos. UCF also is home to the Lockheed Martin Cyber Innovation Lab.

The CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program will coincide with the Fall 2021 launch of UCF’s Master’s in Cyber Security and Privacy degree program.

Zou will work on the program with grant co-principal investigators Solihin; David Mohaisen, an associate professor in UCF’s Department of Computer Science; Clay Posey, an associate professor in UCF’s College of Business; and Yao Li, an assistant professor in UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training, School of Modeling, Simulation and Training. All are faculty in UCF Cyber Security and Privacy Cluster. In addition, the program involves senior personnel from UCF’s Department of Computer Science — Paul GazzilloMark HeinrichGary Leavens, and Ali Orooji — and from UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training, School of Modeling, Simulation and Training — Bruce Caulkins.

Zou says their main task is to recruit high-quality students into cybersecurity learning and research and help them find internships and career jobs in a federal, state, local, or tribal government organization after their graduation.

“In addition, we will participate in all activities in the CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service community, set up connections with other universities, and advertise UCF and its CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program opportunity,” Zou says. “We are all very excited and happy to receive the award.”

About the researchers

Zou received his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and joined UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science in 2005.

Solihin received his doctorate in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and joined UCF’s Department of Computer Science in 2018.

Mohaisen received his doctorate in computer science from the University of Minnesota and joined UCF’s Department of Computer Science in 2017.

Posey received his doctorate in computer information systems from Louisiana Tech University and joined UCF’s College of Business in 2017.

Li received her doctorate in information and computer sciences from the University of California, Irvine, and joined UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training, School of Modeling, Simulation and Training in 2019.

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