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Strengthening Our Nation

As America works to improve its security, 色中色视频 researchers are contributing by fortifying our infrastructure, advancing our technology and training the next generation who will carry on their charge. 

Fall 2021聽触听By Robert Stephens | Illustrations by Patrick Fennessy聽

The world came to a screeching halt on Aug. 14, 2003 鈥 or聽at least it did for 50 million people across the northeastern聽United States and into Canada. On that day a tree branch聽brushed against a power line in Ohio, starting a series of聽failures that became the most widespread blackout in聽North American history. Traffic lights from Boston to聽Toronto went black. Subways in New York sat still. Roller聽coasters in Ohio stopped mid-climb. Communication聽systems went silent, leaving people to wonder, 鈥淲hat鈥檚聽going on?鈥

The massive outage, less than two years after the聽terrorist attacks of 9/11, reminded Americans of the need聽to have the world鈥檚 smartest people on our side, furthering聽research to improve our security and way of life. 色中色视频聽researchers are leading the way in many areas. They see聽the future, anticipate covert threats, and envision real聽ways to protect everything and everyone by fortifying our聽infrastructure, advancing our technology, and training the聽next generation who will carry on their charge.

A portrait of Wei Sun within a star shape


Wei Sun, Associate Professor, Electrical Engineering聽and Computer Science
Project headquarters: 色中色视频鈥檚 Siemens Digital Grid Lab
Partners: U.S. Department of Energy, Open Energy聽Solutions, Duke Energy, Consumers Energy, Virginia Tech

Nearly 7,000 miles from the epicenter of the Northeast聽blackout of 2003, Associate Professor Wei Sun, then a聽student at Tianjin University in China, sat, coincidentally,聽in a class about power systems. A different question came聽to his mind: How could that possibly happen in the聽United States?

鈥淭hat鈥檚 part of the reason I鈥檓 doing this,鈥 says Sun. In聽front of him is a monitor displaying a simulated digitized聽grid of substations, transmission lines and homes. In the聽simulation, a red dot occasionally appears. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 a gap聽where a serious breakdown could occur.鈥

Sun conducted his doctoral research on the 2003聽blackout and recovery when blackouts typically traced back聽to fallen branches, failed transformers or overloaded systems.聽But America鈥檚 energy structure has grown exponentially聽more complex, which is why Sun came to 色中色视频 and is leading聽energy resiliency efforts.

Here, he鈥檚 collaborating with faculty, students, corporate聽partners and the Department of Energy to explore聽methods to prevent the newest version of a devastating聽power loss: cyberattacks.

鈥淥ur power grid evolves daily,鈥 says Sun. 鈥淲e constantly add to it with solar, wind and batteries. But every time a聽component is added, it opens a potentially vulnerable gap聽for someone else with bad intentions.鈥

As Americans continue to invest in solar and wind聽power, hackers discover more opportunities to wreak聽havoc by targeting whole systems.

鈥淸Hackers are] more likely to think bigger and shut聽down transportation, communication and financial聽systems,鈥 says Sun.

And they do it with far less drama than a lightning strike.

Just before Christmas in 2015, hackers disrupted聽power to 230,000 people in Ukraine. It鈥檚 believed to have聽started with a phishing email. In late 2019, cyberattackers聽snuck malware into Texas-based SolarWinds鈥 system and聽eventually spied on clients for nine months before the bug聽was discovered and removed.

鈥淚t鈥檚 hard to get into the mind of a cyberattacker,鈥 says聽Sun, 鈥渂ut that鈥檚 what our team is trying to do.鈥

Sun鈥檚 team uses mathematical equation simulation and聽hardware test beds to develop graphical power grids聽like the one on his screen. Within each grid, algorithms聽monitor and update behaviors. The red dot shows up the聽moment something misbehaves, and a warning is shared聽systemwide, triggering proactive defense and initiating聽adaptive self-healing actions. It鈥檚 similar to the software聽that credit card companies use to immediately notify聽customers of suspicious purchases.

鈥淸Hackers are] more likely to聽think bigger and shut down聽transportation, communication聽and financial systems.鈥澛
Wei Sun, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science

The Department of Energy thinks so highly of the聽technology that it awarded Sun鈥檚 group a $3.2 million聽grant in August to keep the momentum going. A team of聽corporate partners and universities are contributing to a聽$1.55 million cost-share for additional research.

The goal is to eventually implement the program into聽a utility test bed with Duke Energy in the Southeast and聽Consumers Energy in the Midwest.

鈥淓very day attackers are trying to break into the grid,听补nd we can only imagine what they want to do,鈥 says Sun.聽鈥淲ith this, we can be stealthier than they are, and stay a聽step ahead.鈥

A portrait of Konstantin Vodopyanov within a star shape


Konstantin Vodopyanov, 21st Century Chair,聽Professor, Optics and Photonics, and Physics
Project headquarters:
Partners: NASA, Air Force, Navy, U.S. Department聽of Defense

In an indiscreet space on the east side of 色中色视频鈥檚 campus,聽Professor Konstantin Vodopyanov looks around. 鈥淚t聽happened right here, in this room,鈥 he says. Three years聽ago, he saw what no one else could see.

鈥淲e all know certain molecules and isotopes are in the聽air we breathe,鈥 Vodopyanov says, 鈥渂ut to see 10 of them聽defined with certainty 鈥 that was a big step for us.鈥

It had taken more than a decade for Vodopyanov to聽develop the special table-mounted laser in his CREOL聽lab. With it, he could identify water droplets and聽carbon dioxide 鈥 not surprising. But he also saw carbon聽monoxide, methane and nitrogen dioxide, which occur聽naturally but can also be toxic in heavy concentrations.

How could he be 100% sure of what he saw with the laser?

鈥淚 read the 鈥榖ar codes,鈥 鈥 says Vodopyanov.

If you could see into the infrared spectrum, you聽might see that each molecule is encoded with a series聽of resonances, or lines. Vodopyanov鈥檚 laser can see all of聽them. It sends a beam across a room or between buildings,聽combing the bar codes on those microscopic molecules the聽way a scanner at Lowe鈥檚 reads the bar codes on paint cans.

鈥淭he code never changes, whether the molecule is on聽the moon or in front of your face,鈥 says Vodopyanov.

Vodopyanov鈥檚 laser technology could be used in聽healthcare to diagnose myriad illnesses and diseases by聽identifying molecules in a patient鈥檚 breath. It could also聽be a tool to alert the Department of Homeland Security if聽biohazardous chemicals were to be released into the air.

鈥淲e are just beginning to recognize the benefits of聽this technology,鈥 says Vodopyanov, whose research聽has attracted more than $5 million in funding since he聽came to 色中色视频 in 2013. The university offers more than聽opportunities for building corporate partnerships. 鈥淸色中色视频]聽has the right environment.鈥

Vodopyanov grew up in a family of physicists, including聽a grandmother whom he鈥檇 visit in Siberia. In her lab he聽would observe how she gathered scientists around to聽share ideas. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 what it is like here. We learn from each聽other.鈥

His friendly demeanor helps too. In a California pub聽he sat down next to 2005 Nobel Prize winner John Hall聽just to ask some questions about laser frequency combs.聽A few years later, he saw another Nobel Prize-winning聽scientist, Theodor H盲nsch, riding a train in Munich, so he聽asked H盲nsch what he thought about using the broadband聽frequency comb (laser) to identify molecules in the air.

鈥淸H盲nsch] said it was a great idea,鈥 says Vodopyanov.聽鈥淢oments like that inspire me to keep moving forward.鈥

A portrait of Paul Gazzillo within a star shape


Paul Gazzillo, Assistant Professor,聽Computer Science
Project headquarters:聽L3Harris Engineering Center
Partner: U.S. Department of Defense

The words 鈥2 trillion dollars鈥 roll right off the tongue. The聽mind, however, cannot comprehend the enormity. Spend聽a billion dollars per year and it would take 2,000 years to聽exhaust $2 trillion.

Even for a computer scientist, it鈥檚 just too much.

鈥淚t can be very complicated,鈥 says Assistant Professor聽Paul Gazzillo. He heads a project with the lofty goal聽of tracking the movement of illicit corporate money聽worldwide, which totals an estimated $2 trillion every聽year. The number is raw because it鈥檚 a blend of tax evasion,聽money laundering, healthcare fraud, credit card breaches,聽drug trafficking and any scheme intended to remain聽undetected. For investigators, it can take years to track聽one case.

With the help of a former FBI agent and two other聽computer science researchers, Gazzillo is on a mission聽to simplify the process. When Gazzillo says they might聽be onto something soon, it should matter to everyone.聽Because every dollar in a stack of $2 trillion could be tied聽to an unfathomable story:

  • In 2018 the Department of Justice seized more than $140 million聽from an online company that profited from ads related to聽prostitution, including child prostitution and human trafficking.聽Banks and major credit cards had stopped providing service, so聽the online company turned to digital聽currency and shell companies. The FBI聽said if they had had readily available聽ownership information about the聽company, the abuse of victims 鈥渃ould聽have been halted years earlier than聽it was.鈥
  • Investigators in 2015 uncovered the聽unusual buying and selling of racehorses聽between shell companies. It turns out,聽the transactions were a cover for a聽Mexican drug cartel, whose alleged boss聽claimed to have killed 385 Americans.
  • When the federal government urgently聽issued checks to small businesses so聽they could pay employees during COVID聽lockdowns (the Paycheck Protection聽Program), it鈥檚 estimated that fraudulent聽applications accounted for $76 billion聽that could have otherwise gone to聽legitimate businesses in real need.

Gazzillo is using a technique聽called 鈥渁utomated reasoning,鈥 where聽computing systems apply logic聽to data. It could eventually help聽investigators sift through complex聽networks of corporate relationships聽and create a complete picture of聽each company.

鈥淚t will help investigators do their聽jobs a lot faster,鈥 says Gazzillo.

In August, Gazzillo received a聽nearly $1 million Defense Advanced聽Research Projects Agency (DARPA)聽Young Faculty award to lead a聽research team at 色中色视频 that will聽investigate complex corporate聽relationships.

鈥淚t鈥檚 exciting because look at聽what DARPA has done,鈥 Gazzillo聽says. 鈥淭hey were at the forefront聽of the internet and GPS. With their聽support, and a good team of people,聽I really believe we can produce a聽major benefit to society.鈥

A portrait of Greg Welch within a star shape


Greg Welch, AdventHealth Endowed Chair in聽Healthcare Simulation,
Project headquarters:
Partners: Office of Naval Research, Army, U.S. National聽Science Foundation, SoarTech

There鈥檚 a body in Professor Greg Welch鈥檚 lab lying prone聽on a bed. It鈥檚 a boy named Joe, maybe 9 years old. He isn鈥檛聽alive, but he isn鈥檛 completely lifeless either. He鈥檚 a hybrid聽on a number of levels.

鈥淚 don鈥檛 feel well,鈥 Joe says, coughing. He sounds miserable.

鈥淲hat鈥檚 wrong, Joe?鈥 a nurse in training asks.

鈥淢y throat is scratchy,鈥 he says. 鈥淚 feel a little hot.聽Where鈥檚 my mom?鈥

Joe is what Welch calls a 鈥減hysical virtual patient.鈥

Physically, you can reach out and touch him. Virtually, a聽computer generates his voice and his visible symptoms,聽which are projected from beneath the plastic body.

The nurse in training pulls back a blanket and sees a聽rash all over Joe鈥檚 torso. 鈥淧lease help,鈥 Joe says.

鈥淥ne advantage of this technology over a virtual human聽is that you don鈥檛 need virtual reality goggles 鈥 you can聽see and touch the body as if it鈥檚 really there, because it is,鈥澛爏ays Welch. 鈥淭he advantage over a manikin is that our聽patient isn鈥檛 static. There鈥檚 a dynamic richness to it 鈥斅爓e can change the symptoms, the behaviors, the race聽and the gender.鈥

Tomorrow Joe might be unconscious. Or the patient聽might change to a woman showing stroke symptoms, like聽one side of the face drooping. Or it could be a soldier on聽a gurney, screaming. Under the blanket there might be a聽gaping wound.

鈥淭he goal is to make it as experiential as possible,鈥 says聽Welch. 鈥淣obody wants nurses and medics learning how to聽deal with the anxiety of a traumatic injury on the job while聽things turn chaotic, and a life or limb might be lost. So,聽we鈥檝e developed this patient to more realistically simulate聽what cannot safely be duplicated.鈥

For Welch, this is more than a research project 鈥 he鈥檚聽helping the people who have dedicated their lives to聽protecting us. His work has led to dozens of U.S.-related聽patents, with others in process. Yet he knows the work, and聽the successes, are not about him.

鈥淎 command group from the Naval Air Warfare Center聽Training Systems Division [NAWCTSD] came into the lab聽a few days ago. Their mission is significant: to enhance the capabilities of our nation鈥檚 Navy and Marine Corps via聽training,鈥 Welch says.

From his office at the Institute for Simulation聽and Training, Welch can see straight over a fence to聽NAWCTSD. It inspires him.

鈥淚 have great respect for people on our frontlines 鈥 in聽healthcare, the military and law enforcement,鈥 Welch聽says. 鈥淭hey鈥檝e chosen professions that are taxing, risky聽and often thankless. They do it for us, not for themselves.聽Maybe this is one way I can, in my own humble way, begin聽to repay them.鈥

Building Our Next Line of Defense

The announcement went public in the spring: 色中色视频鈥檚 master鈥檚 degree program in cybersecurity and聽privacy in the fall of 2021. Three months was a tight window to both spread聽the word and hope a few graduates would make an immediate pivot to聽participate in a brand-new program.

鈥淭he response surpassed my expectations,鈥 says Yan Solihin, interim chair聽of 色中色视频鈥檚 computer science department and director of the university鈥檚聽Cyber Security and Privacy cluster, who came to 色中色视频 after serving as聽director for the U.S. National Science Foundation鈥檚 Secure and Trustworthy聽Cyberspace program.

In a best-case scenario, Solihin had 16 slots available. He received nearly聽twice as many applicants. He has good reason to believe 色中色视频鈥檚 master鈥檚聽program in cybersecurity and privacy will attract many more interested聽students over the next few years.

Trends over the past decade at 色中色视频 might have foretold a surge of interest聽in cybersecurity. In the past 10 years, enrollment in computer science related聽majors has more than quadrupled to 4,700 students. In addition聽to graduate degree programs in computer vision and cybersecurity and聽privacy, 色中色视频 has launched a minor in secure computing and networks,听补 master鈥檚 in digital forensics, and now offers a graduate certificate in聽modeling and simulation of behavioral cybersecurity. The cybersecurity聽cluster has grown to a collaboration of eight faculty members who work聽with more than 50 student researchers across multiple disciplines.

Earlier this year, the NSF awarded 色中色视频 $2.9 million to prepare a pipeline聽of cybersecurity talent for the workforce. For the same reason, Solihin鈥檚聽department has received $5 million in external grants from government聽agencies and private entities since early 2020.

鈥淲e could have a national powerhouse in cybersecurity and privacy聽education to match the quality of our research program,鈥 Solihin says. 鈥淲e聽already have the energy, the know-how and the critical mass of students.聽It鈥檚 only a matter of scaling up our resources to meet the demand. Once we聽have more faculty members and lab space, we could expand the master鈥檚聽program and create a bachelor鈥檚 degree in cybersecurity and privacy.鈥

The demand is exploding. According to cyberseek.org, in 色中色视频 alone聽there are more than 21,000 job openings in cybersecurity. Public and聽private employers are finally realizing cyberattacks, like ransomware, are聽everyday threats, and the costs of being a victim are far more exorbitant聽than hiring people who are trained to protect data and systems.

Solihin is among the professors who have come to 色中色视频 in recent years聽for this very reason: to help expand the talent pool in our nation鈥檚 security.聽鈥淵ou can see where this is all going,鈥 he says before pausing聽and emphasizing two words: 鈥淰ery quickly.鈥