May 1, 2023

Building Pathways for the Next Generation of Cybersecurity Experts

The vision behind the successful Cyber Halo Innovation Research Program that recently received $5 million in funding

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Image by Shannon Colson | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The Cyber Halo Innovation Research Program (CHIRP) is a collaboration between Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the U.S. Space Force's Space Systems Command (SSC) to provide underserved and minority students career opportunities in cybersecurity and STEM fields, as well as the support they need to pursue those opportunities.

In recent years, there has been a growing cybersecurity threat to space-based technologies including satellites, global positioning systems, and other space-related advancements. PNNL, which includes cybersecurity experts and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals, has a record of successfully equipping cyber experts with strategies to predict and prevent cyberattacks. The PNNL team had a desire to broaden pathways for the next generation of cybersecurity and STEM experts.

Accordingly, PNNL teamed up with SSC to create CHIRP. This CHIRP team launched a national model to provide a college-to-career journey at minority-serving institutions, combining the power of universities, government, and industry to address the workforce gap in cybersecurity. Currently, CHIRP has partnerships with two minority-serving institutions—California State University, San Bernadino and the University of Texas at El Paso. On a daily basis, the CHIRP team meets with, mentors, and helps students at these universities succeed. Based on the early success of CHIRP and the urgency to build the future workforce, CHIRP received five million dollars in funding through the Fiscal Year 2023 Defense Appropriations Bill via SSC.

Penny McKenzie, a PNNL cybersecurity engineer who has devoted years to investing in the future cybersecurity workforce, led the small powerhouse team of PNNL staff members that became CHIRP. McKenzie commented: “The purpose is impact. We want to impact the lives of the students while they are still in school and after. The CHIRP program is all about the students; it’s about changing lives and providing opportunities that otherwise would not be an option.” Cybersecurity experts Lisa Campbell and Mark Watson and STEM education professionals Ann Wright-Mockler and Juan Lopez later joined the effort to expand CHIRP to additional institutions and create more opportunities for the next generation of space cyberdefenders.

The CHIRP team shared that they work with certain schools because they want to reach those students who might not have the resources to pursue such life-changing opportunities. Campbell explained, “our goal as a team is to provide students guidance and the reassurance that they can succeed in ways they never thought they could before. It’s about providing unique opportunities that can change lives and careers.”

The significant need for the development of the future, diverse cybersecurity workforce requires not only launching programs like CHIRP, but also building them on sustainable models. The comprehensive approach CHIRP takes to building collaborations across sectors to develop opportunities, training, and mentoring for students is a substantial investment. The new funding means there is a future for CHIRP. Being able to fund new partnerships and bring on new PNNL staff members is crucial for the success and sustainability of the CHIRP model. McKenzie shared, “our goal is to continue to partner with additional institutions. Our team is composed of people who are passionate about cybersecurity, and the ways this program can open pathways to careers for students and offer a life-changing opportunity for them.”

About student opportunities at PNNL

PNNL welcomes hundreds of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students annually through a suite of programs, to develop their research skills, to receive mentoring from leading experts, and to grow STEM career opportunities. Interested students can learn more on the PNNL STEM Internships website.

Published: May 1, 2023