Women make their mark in national cyber competition

Women part of the three top performing teams at this year's National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition


More women compete at worlds largest cyber defense competition for college students

At the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition hosted by title sponsor Raytheon Company in San Antonio last month, brought together the top 10 teams in the country to compete for the national title.

This year was the first year, in the competitions 11-year history that they had a cyber team that was comprised of more than 50 percent women. This team came from BYU - and took home second place - falling to the reigning champions from the University of Central Florida - which also had 2 females on their eight-person team.

The top three performing teams all had women on them, a significant highlight as there were only seven women competing in the competition which included at total of 80 competitors.

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Valecia Maclin – program director of cybersecurity and special missions at Raytheon

Earlier this year, Raytheon and the National Cybersecurity Alliance (NCSA) published statistics regarding women and Millennials in cybersecurity. Two key findings from the study speak to the talent gap that exists for women in security.

  • Globally, 62 percent of men and 75 percent of women said no secondary or high school computer classes offered the skills to help them pursue a career in cybersecurity
  • Globally, 52 percent of women, compared to 39 percent of young men, said they felt no cybersecurity programs or activities were available to them

Maclin, however, said, "Participation in competitions like NCCDC provide young women the confidence that they are: skilled to contribute and excel, attain hands-on experience, and as it's still prevalent today, they can become comfortable with being one of only a few women in the field that demonstrate team-building techniques to not only empower their voice and contribution to be heard, but enables teams to deliver much better solutions for us to defend against cyber threats."

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Cara Cornel – Brigham Young University

Cornel's team, the only team that was 50 percent female, earned second place at 2016 NCCDC.

Cornel first became involved with the BYU as a research assistant in the BYU Cybersecurity Research Lab (CSRL). "My position in the CSRL then provided me with an opportunity to become a member of the Red Team. After showing an immense desire to learn, I was asked to join the team for the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition," Cornel said.

Being part of this team's success was surprising and exciting for Cornel. "I did not expect for the team to do so well, being newcomers to this competition at the national level. This placement gave me an idea of how I fit in the cybersecurity field, specifically which skills I have and which ones I lack."

"Cybersecurity competitions, such as NCCDC, can help women establish themselves in this industry by providing a stage to showcase their abilities," she continued.

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Whitney Winders – Brigham Young University

Winders has been part of the Cyber Security Research Lab (CSRL) for over a year now and has taken several security classes. "I expressed an interest in cyber security and my coach and professor Dale Rowe has done a fantastic job of taking myself and others under his wing and mentoring us," she said.

Being part of the second-place team, "Is not only a huge source of pride for me but I feel the females on these teams have helped pave the road for women in cyber security," Winders said.

Noting that she too sees a lack of confidence as an obstacle for women in security, Winders said, "Competitions like NCCDC remind not only ourselves but everyone that having more women in the field is key to success as displayed by the number of women on the placing teams as compared to the others."

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Sarah Cunha – Brigham Young University

Cunha has worked with Dale Rowe (coach of the BYU cyber team) and focused her studies on cybersecurity for about two years now. Rowe invited her on several CCDC teams in those two years, and so she has had the great privilege of building up some experience in these competitions prior to this year's regionals and nationals. "My networking background made me a prime candidate for the team, as we try to have a semi-expert in many different areas involved in the competition," Cunha said.

Women who are inclined to pursue careers in the STEM workforce need to jump in despite concerns that they may be the only woman in the room. Cunha said, "Jobs are opening and we are being sought after, which is great but more importantly the industry needs skilled professionals that can tackle the problems and threats of today that have become a matter of national and international urgency. Cyber-warfare rages on, and we need more good people on the good side, fighting to protect. The population of women is one that has yet to be tapped into for these needed skills."

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The women of University of Central Florida's team

Two women shared in celebrating the overall win making their UCF team champions of the 2016 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

Carolyn Chenicek attended her first Hack@UCF meeting about two years ago, shortly after starting her Master's degree in Digital Forensics. "I returned to school following a 10-year hiatus, after becoming frustrated with my career prospects. It wasn't until this past year that I became more involved with the club and joined the CCDC team. I am very thankful to be involved in the Hack@UCF club. It’s given me an opportunity to share my skills and experience and learn from other club members," she said.

Heather Lawrence, who was an alternate on the 2014 team in addition to being a member of this year's team, said "There have been multiple instances during my college career where people told me to give up and change majors or that it was a waste of time. Coming in first brings a sense of validation - not only did I not give up, but I stuck to it, and it paid off. I sincerely hope that when other young women see us as national champions they see themselves standing there. If our win can motivate anyone to keep going and don't give up, it was well worth it."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.