As California State University, San Bernardino is about to wrap up its inaugural year as the first university in the Cyber Halo Innovation Research Program (CHIRP), its initial group of four students has made their mark in advancing the program created to develop and grow the cybersecurity workforce to build stronger, more flexible and secure space borne assets.

The CHIRP program was created by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command (SSC), which brings together government, industry, colleges and universities to provide students a direct two-year pathway to a cybersecurity career at SSC or their industry partners. Cal State San Bernadino is the first institution of higher education to join the program.

The four CSUSB students, Abigail Gutierrez Deniz, Jason Handen, Aubrie Kendall and Darlene Tarin, worked as a team over the summer of 2022 to research and write a paper in the category of Managing Cyber Risk to Missions, said Vincent Nestler, an associate professor of information decision sciences and the director of the CSUSB Cybersecurity Center.

The four students were invited to give a presentation of their research at the DoD UC2 Workshop held in the DoD National Defense University at Fort McNair, Washington, D.C., on Nov. 16. Ultimately, the CSUSB students’ paper took first place in their category, and they were invited to publish the paper in “Joint Forces Quarterly,” which is the journal the secretary of defense reads, Nestler said.

To show the significance of their work, Nestler said the winning paper in a different category was researched and written by 17 schools.

“I don’t know that you can compare them,” Nestler said. “I’m not trying to say these four students are better than 17 schools; what I’m saying is that there was significant effort put in by a bunch of other schools to compete.”

CHIRP identifies students in their last two years of undergraduate studies who want to focus on becoming research scholars and upon graduation, they’ll work either with a lab or at Space Force or potentially become one of their partners or people that work with them, Nestler said.

Students who participate in CHIRP receive two years of intensive training designed specifically to equip them for careers protecting the nation’s vital space-based technologies from cyber threats. The students complete a two-year fellowship, including tuition assistance, professional development and a compensated research experience. The students complete an internship between their junior and senior years and are hired when they graduate. They have to commit two years afterward, Nestler said.

Throughout the program, the students work closely with mentors from PNNL, SSC and industry on space-related cybersecurity research projects, using tools and techniques that apply directly to the types of challenges they will face in their future careers. The students meet with their mentors once a week. They research and discuss different ideas and try to put together additional research that will support what Space Force is doing for their mission.

The four CSUSB students, who come from Riverside, Moreno Valley, Hesperia and Muscoy (San Bernardino), have all expressed an interest in continuing to work in the cybersecurity field as a career after completing the CHIRP program and two-year job commitment.

Kendall, who is working toward a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in cybersecurity, said her ultimate plan is to learn as much as she can in cybersecurity and use that to advance to an executive-level position in a federal organization and “make sure to serve and protect the nation.”

Kendall said she became interested in cybersecurity as a high school teacher.

“One year when I was teaching, there was an emergency announcement that the network system was down and that all teachers were to report to an emergency after-school meeting. At the meeting, teachers were informed that the network system was down due to ransomware. Around the same time, I received a flyer for the Cybersecurity Open House at CSUSB,” Kendall said. “I saw that as divine fate and attended. From there I saw my path layout into the cyber workforce and decided to apply to start my journey.”

Gutierrez, who moved to Hesperia three years ago, but grew up in South Central Los Angeles, is majoring in intelligence and crime analysis with a concentration in cybersecurity. She said her ultimate goal is to work for Space Force Command or Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and help mentor future cybersecurity students.

Gutierrez became interested in cybersecurity when her uncle gave her a desktop computer.

“I was so intrigued with all the functions and hardware it had. I remember I spent hours looking at all the functions and applications. I was just amazed by the things you can do with a computer,” said Gutierrez, who added that her interest was increased from all the recent cyberattacks organizations and people have faced in losing their information due to a hacker gaining access.

“It made me realize the importance of keeping information secure, but also that we needed to know how to defend ourselves from these attacks. Sometimes it is just information from individuals that affects only them, but imagine if that were to happen to the country; a lot of people would be affected,” said Gutierrez. “We need more individuals to help defend our country and I want to be part of that.”

Handen, who lives in Riverside, is a junior majoring in information systems and technology with a concentration in cybersecurity. He will be seeking and maintaining employment as a civilian at the Space Command Systems or at the Los Angeles Air Force Base with the goal of continuing to work in cybersecurity whether in the public or private sector depending on the job duties and feelings of personal satisfaction.

Handen said he always had a passion for technology. During high school, he largely focused on mathematics and science, and while finding great success, neither seemed like a proper career fit. He enrolled at Riverside City College (RCC) with a tentative major in computer science and while interesting, the job market and associated lifestyle did not appeal to him. But that changed after an instructor’s suggestion.

“A professor at RCC recommended CSUSB for its cybersecurity programs and scholarships, and the rest is history,” Handen said. “I had finally found a degree program that matched my interest and skillset!”

Taren, who lives in Moreno Valley, is a junior also majoring in information systems and technology with a concentration in cybersecurity.

Her plans after graduation are to work for the Space System Command or Pacific Northwest National Laboratory with the goal of working for the federal government with the Department of Defense in the cybersecurity division or for the FBI in their cyber crime division.

Taren became interested in cybersecurity as a sophomore in high school competing as a cyber patriot in the Air Force Association, a national youth cybersecurity competition.

“Participating and having amazing coaches is what started my interest, as I have never experienced what cybersecurity entails,” Taren said. “It gave me a taste, and I have wanted more ever since.”

Nestler said the research paper the four students were assigned to work on was based on a request by the Department of Defense for information on zero trust, which is a strategic approach to cybersecurity that secures an organization by eliminating implicit trust and seeks continuous validation at every stage of digital interaction.

“The goal of our students’ paper was to help the DOD become more flexible, resilient and quicker to respond to risk,” Nestler said.

“They put together a few concepts along with input from Space Force, PNNL, myself, and they conducted research and wrote about it,” said Nestler, who made some comments, but it was the students’ paper. “They got together, worked nights and weekends, and kept doing research, trying stuff and talking to people. And they wrote it, rewrote it, rewrote it again and then boom.”

The paper took first place, he said.

The four students said working collaboratively on the research paper had a profound effect on them. Taren, Gutierrez and Handen said it was especially exciting because having a research paper published was something that doesn’t happen to undergraduates.

“I never imagined that I would be publishing a paper and I am thankful for the opportunity. I am glad I joined the CHIRP scholarship or else I would have never been part of this paper,” Gutierrez said. “Especially that it doesn’t happen to undergraduate students.”

Handen added, “The Joint Force Quarterly (JFQ) invitation is a very exciting prospect, as this peer-reviewed journal is commonly read by the upper echelons of the DOD. By submitting our paper for publication, we hope that our work will be able to make the largest impact possible in supporting national security and the safety of the American people. Even before the CHIRP cohort’s formal term of public service begins, we have had the honor and privilege of contributing to the maintenance of America’s advantageous cybersecurity posture.”

Kendall said being invited to publish their paper in Joint Force Quarterly was a validation of the amount of hard work and effort the team put into the research of the paper and the mentor’s support to make it happen.

But for Kendall personally, the paper is a vindication of being from San Bernardino.

“It disproves everything negative I have heard either directly or indirectly from others about how San Bernardino has no talent or there is no future for San Bernardino,” Kendall said. “San Bernardino and the Inland Empire is a great place of talent and all it takes is a bit of nurturing, support, and most importantly, opportunity. “

The CSUSB CHIRP program has expanded, adding more students to the program for cohort 2, and is expected to double to 16 students in the future, said Nestler, who added the program’s success is spreading to other college campuses.

“Our model, what we’ve started, is now going to be, to some extent, replicated and it’s going to move on to University of Texas, El Paso,” Nestler said. “So, there’s a second one starting after we started the initial one. So, we’re kind of like the tip of the spear in this effort.”