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Jackson School undergrads receive cybersecurity research funding on national projects – and build their work skills

July 20, 2021

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Jackson School students (from left to right) - Sarah Jacob, Juliet Romano-Olsen, Claire Tanaka and Caitlin Quirk - were awarded funding in 2020-2021 for National Science Foundation-funded cybersecurity research projects.

Conducting real-world cybersecurity research has become a reality for four Jackson School undergrads, thanks to being selected to participate in two National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded projects led by Sara Curran and Jessica Beyer, both Jackson School faculty. In 2021, two of the student researchers, both juniors, additionally received University of Washington Mary Gates Research Scholarships 2020-2021, which come with $5,000 stipends, for their cybersecurity research.

“Working on cybersecurity research has greatly enriched my academic and professional interests, opening my eyes to the ethical, cultural, and privacy concerns of technology,” said Caitlin Quirk, an international studies major with minors in Spanish and Latin American and Caribbean Studies who received one of the Mary Gates Research Scholarships.

Quirk, a research assistant on a NSF-funded project focused on Internet of Things (IoT) devices and building security, for which Beyer is an investigator along with faculty from the College of Built Environments at the UW, also spoke about soft skills she has learned through the experience: “The interdisciplinary nature of our team has taught me how to communicate across fields and engage with the intersectionality of international studies. I am incredibly grateful to learn from my mentors and coworkers everyday.”

Another international studies major, Sarah Jacob, who also received a Mary Gates Research Scholarship this year, has helped build databases to contextualize Twitter data for a NSF-funded project under the guidance of Curran and Beyer as part of a team of social science researchers at the UW and computer science and disaster informatic researchers at Louisiana State University looking to understand sentiments in response to COVID-19 in Washington and Louisiana states.

“Prior to this experience, I had no idea that research might be a career path for me, but it has been really exciting to discover that there is a space where you get to ask these incredibly nuanced questions about human behavior and technology,” said Jacob, who is also pursuing a minor in data science. Jacob and Quirk will each continue their research work for their respective projects in 2021-2022.

Helping students gain work-ready skills
Both Curran and Beyer have pioneered Jackson School graduate and undergraduate cybersecurity research opportunities on projects for businesses, think tanks and non-profits. For example, they applied for, and received, National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates supplementary awards for the projects they are lead investigators on. These NSF-REU awards aim to involve students in meaningful research experiences.

Juliet Romano-Olsen, who graduated in June 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and minors in French and European Studies, was of two Jackson School students who received the award for involvement in a project focusing on information seeking and sentiment on Twitter during COVID-19, with a particular focus on misinformation and demography.

“Working with the research team, I’ve learned about how the whole process works and the amount of reading and reworking that goes into a single academic article. Fortunately, many Jackson School classes require research papers, and through doing these assignments I have found out how best I read, take notes, and compile material into a cohesive written piece,” she said.

Mary Gates Research Scholarship 2021-2022 recipient, Sarah Jacob, also was selected for the NSF-REU award, in addition to her research assistant position on the project.

Claire Tanaka, who also graduated in June 2021 with a B.A. in International Studies, will finish her research this summer on the NSF-funded project focused on Internet of Things (IoT) and building security, for which Beyer is an investigator. As a NSF-REU awardee, Tanaka has engaged in policy analysis, built and maintained a database of policies related to Internet of Things (IoT) devices, IoT devices and privacy, and smart city initiatives. She has also worked with other undergraduates on the team on literature reviews focused on the privacy implications of IoT device systems in the built environment.

“As a part of the [UW] College of Built Environments and Jackson School of International Studies project team, I have truly come to understand the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and bridging the gap between policymakers and practitioners — themes I became familiar with through Jackson School classes but did not fully comprehend until I began my research,” said Tanaka. “Contributing to the team’s shared understanding of policy and the built environment has been an invaluable learning opportunity, leaving me with many lessons that I hope to carry into our complex and interconnected world.”