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Q&A: Undergrad Max Zuber ’25 receives Mary Gates Research Scholarship

April 25, 2024

In this Q&A, we speak with Max Zuber, a Jackson School junior majoring in global and regional studies and political science with a focus on international security, who was recently selected as a 2024 recipient of a University of Washington Mary Gates Research Scholarship. The award will support his research as a Cybersecurity Research Fellow within the Jackson School.

Mary Gates Research Scholarships, which award $5,000, are competitive scholarships intended to enhance the educational experiences of undergraduate students at the University of Washington while they are engaged in research guided by faculty.

Name: Max Zuber
Majors: Global & Regional Studies, Political Science: International Security
Minor: Russian Language
Expected Graduation: June 2025

Photo of Max Zuber

Max Zuber ’25

Tell us more about your cybersecurity research under the Mary Gates scholarship.
Max: I do research specifically on cybercriminal organizations, particularly those that operate out of the post-Soviet space. In the past I have published research explaining the phenomenon of prolific and successful Russian ransomware gangs (a specific flavor of cybercriminal organization) suddenly collapsing, despite their aptitude for carrying out sophisticated and oftentimes very lucrative attacks. The research I am working on currently as part of the scholarship is an exploration into cooperation and defection within individual cybercriminal organizations. What incentives do cybercriminals have to cooperate with each other? Why don’t they steal from each other, or hack each other, or rat on their coworkers? These questions are what I am seeking to answer, and I am using the leaked internal chat logs of a Russian ransomware gang as my primary source of information. I combine my deep area studies and language knowledge with theoretical concepts from my political science training to produce research that crosses multiple disciplines and contributes to a greater understanding of how bad actors commit their crimes in cyberspace.

What skills in your undergrad experience are you’re using?
Max: I think that this topic really is just the perfect intersection of all of my individual interests and skills. It is the only research topic I’ve encountered where I really get to utilize every single skill that I’ve learned here at UW. I am able to use my Russian language skills to translate the chat logs, my Jackson School area studies knowledge to understand those logs within a broader societal and historical context, and the theory I have learned in political science courses to understand the incentives behind cooperation and defection. When I realized that all of these things converged on my research topic and on cybersecurity, I knew that I was going down the right path and that I needed to pursue the research that I am engaged in.

How will the Mary Gates research award support your work?
It is directly affecting my ability to do the research by allowing me to work less over the weekends. In turn, I believe that when I look back on my undergraduate years, the research I am doing now will stand out to me as one of the most formative and important aspects. Not only does the publication of my work look great on paper, but the process of researching and writing, and rewriting three, four, maybe five times is something that I don’t get out of my normal classes. I don’t submit papers three or four times, but only once and get graded on that paper. This aspect of the research and writing process is something that I really have only been exposed to through my research with Jessica Beyer [Jackson School Assistant Teaching Professor and a lead of the School’s Cybersecurity Initiative], and I believe that it will be one of the greatest skills that I’ve acquired as I hope to move on to graduate school after I graduate from UW next year.

Favorite Jackson School courses?
I think what stands out most obviously to me is Jackson School faculty Jessica Beyer’s class, JSIS B 355: Cybersecurity and International Studies. I took the course in fall quarter of 2022, and not only was it my introduction to her, but it was my introduction to the subject matter that I have become so deeply involved in. Another course that stands out to me as being very influential is POL S 371: Global Crime and Corruption, taught by Professor James Long. The course introduced me to a way of thinking about the world that was unique from anything I had ever learned before. I am obviously indebted to my Russian professors for working with me over the course of the past three years to get my abilities to the point where I can do research in a foreign language. Finally, my courses with Professor Chris Jones in the Jackson School have provided me with the most in-depth, detailed, and nuanced account of Soviet and Russian history that I could ask for, and have served as the building blocks of my area studies knowledge.

Advice to current or future Jackson School majors?
Max: My first piece of advice may sound trivial, but I cannot stress its importance enough. Take classes that interest you. That’s the bottom line. I knew nothing about cybersecurity, but the topic sounded interesting, so I took a class on it, and the opportunities afforded to me through that decision have led me to where I am today. My second piece of advice is to interact with and build relationships with your professors. Especially in those classes that interest you. If you have something to add in class, or a question about something that interests you, don’t be afraid to raise your hand – your professors will take notice, and if you display enough interest, they will think of you when they come across opportunities for their students. My final piece of advice is to always stay curious. We are students at this university to learn new things about the world – whether it be political science, history, or biology – we all are here to learn, and what better way to learn than to constantly come up with new questions that you want to know the answer to. And when you can’t find the answer in a class or a quick Google search to satisfy that curiosity, then maybe you’ve found yourself the perfect research opportunity.

Read a Jackson School research blog article by Max Zuber titled, “Explaining Organizational Instability in Russian Ransomware Gangs.”