This past summer, 14 promising Texas A&M University undergraduate students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, traveled across the state to participate in research and field visits relating to cybersecurity and biothreat defense missions of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, DHS.
The 10-week paid internships were part of the Summer Research Institute of Cross-Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense, or CBTS, a DHS Center of Excellence within Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Bryan-College Station.
“The CBTS Summer Research Institute was established to introduce students to the homeland security enterprise and to provide an opportunity for them to develop high-tech skills,” said Heather Manley Lillibridge, Ph.D., CBTS executive director. “Their training will be critically important to detecting and offsetting increasingly sophisticated supply chain threats, as they will be the ones who become the next generation of research leaders.”
Students of the CBTS Summer Research Institute participated in field and laboratory learning experiences at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, Texas A&M University–Commerce in northeast Texas, Texas A&M University and the Texas A&M-RELLIS campus in Bryan.
The internships pair high-performing STEM students with faculty mentors of The Texas A&M University System. Internship activities included interactions with DHS stakeholders such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the DHS Science and Technology Directorate and Office of University Programs.
“The focus of these internships is to provide real-world experiences at ports of entry and working laboratories across The Texas A&M University System,” said Katlin Shoemaker, CBTS director of education. “Having students in real-world settings immerses them in learning as they personally experience these technologies and practices in the field.”
Students participated in professional development seminars and field trips to DHS ports of entry. Each student participated in one of two focus areas — cybersecurity or biothreat defense.
A cohort of eight students split between Texas A&M-RELLIS and Texas A&M-Commerce conducted two projects encompassing prevention, detection, assessment and remediation of cybersecurity incidents.
One project reviewed architectural and technological improvements of a next-generation 911 emergency response system. The other focused on cybersecurity measures related to maritime ship technology.
Students visited U.S. Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston for tours of the automation, operational technology and communications systems aboard Tony tug and ferry vessels. Technical staff discussed the technology it uses and cybersecurity threats it encounters, as well as standard protocols for mitigation.
Summer Research Institute students and faculty mentors contributed to bridging gaps in maritime systems, policies and regulations with their research project titled “Towards Zero-Trust: A Systems Engineering Approach for Vital Ship Systems’ Cybersecurity Risk Assessments.” They conducted daily research on real-world cybersecurity issues.
Meanwhile, students studying the next-generation 911 system learned about threat modeling and risk assessment across the system. They also learned about emerging applications for attackers to employ artificial intelligence and 5G and 6G networks in increasingly sophisticated attacks.
Project coordinators said their overall goal was to answer how an automated risk assessment tool might be developed to encounter new and emerging risks to next-generation 911. The project included a survey of existing literature and threat modeling using a range of examples like a 911 call interception, a malware example and a location spoofing example.
Summer research projects for the six fellows studying biothreat defense encompassed biological threats to livestock and produce, including tickborne cattle tick fever, locust swarms, tobacco mosaic virus and citrus greening.
Field trips included reciprocal visits to view research facilities on each campus. They also included a trip to the Pharr International port of entry for discussions with U.S. Customs and Border Protection on border safety, cargo inspections and pest identification, non-intrusive inspection methods, and enforcement related to agricultural pests and diseases.
At the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, AgriLife Research faculty provided lessons in pest identification, visual plant disease identification, protein purification and expression, and determining plant stresses via RAMAN spectroscopy.
The students presented their findings to program leaders after the 10-week internship and wrote “mini-theses” that would be suitable for future publication. Presentations for both the Biothreat Defense and Cybersecurity program focuses are available online.
“This inaugural year of the CBTS Summer Research Institute was a great success with student presentations demonstrating a solid understanding of lessons learned,” Shoemaker said. “We’re excited to welcome a new cohort in 2024 and our hope is that this program generates far reaching impacts in training the next generation of research leaders for safer supply chains.”