DISA’s #NEXTGEN initiatives seek broader partnering opportunities with academia


by Russ Goemaere
DISA Strategic Communication and Public Affairs

In an effort to expand its #NEXTGEN outreach, Defense Information Systems Agency officials recently hosted representatives from Drury University, Springfield, Missouri, to discuss reciprocal opportunities for staff and students to enhance cybersecurity for both institutions.

Jason Martin, vice director of the Business and Development Center, hosted the meeting with Dr. Shannon McMurtrey, assistant professor, Management and Information Systems and Lindsay Tobin, director of admissions at the university.

“The visit was an outstanding outreach effort providing us with information on how to leverage our recruiting efforts to better compete for cyber talent,” Martin said. “Our secondary goal was to learn how we can impact curriculum development at the university level to better prepare graduates for success in positions with the [Department of Defense], as well as in federal and state governments.”

Martin said DISA will work with Drury to establish a research and development agreement that allows DISA staff to act in a visiting professorial or lecturer capacity at the university. The agreement will expose students to real-world cybersecurity issues and allow opportunities for Drury’s faculty and staff to conduct research and assist in problem solving at DISA.

Martin acknowledged reaching the agreement requires more work, but expressed optimism that it will come to fruition in 2020.

McMurtrey briefed DISA attendees on some of the university’s plans to improve the cyber curriculum at Drury and expand cyber training programs in Missouri.

"Drury is working with the Missouri Cybersecurity Center of Excellence to build a regional development program, with input from industry and other academic institutions, to give students hands-on work experience in cyber to complement the academic curriculum," he said.

Alex Hornberger, information technology specialist, Cyber Development Directorate, also an associate professor at Towson University, was impressed with McMurtrey’s comments.

“Academia needs to center some of its course work on operational scenarios at the technical and tactical levels and include real-world experience so the students can work through complicated problems,” he said. 

Hornberger said curriculum development must mirror real-world scenarios.

“At Towson, we teach the students theory and then give them a practical exercise. In one class, we give the students outdated software and tell them to build an enterprise network and defend it from an attack led by professional red teamers who donate their time. It’s what NSA wants us to do in our course work, and I think it is also what DISA wants us to do to build potential employees,” he said.

Frank McHenry, director of the DISA strategic outreach and talent acquisition division, said the agency would continue to invite colleges and universities to come to DISA. He believes building enduring relationships can fill the talent pipeline for years to come.

“We need to continue our outreach to Drury to leverage all the up and coming cyber talent Missouri is developing,” he said.

Tobin sees only opportunity through the Drury/DISA relationship.

“When we can arm our students with real-world experience and help DoD with its mission it is a win for both our organizations and the country,” she said.

Don Means, DISA’s Defense Enclave Services executive, emphasized the importance of ensuring students are well-rounded and not simply technicians.

“There is value in learning about the arts, history, philosophy and athletics in regard to teambuilding and leadership. The challenges we face in DoD often call for thinking outside the box and sometimes it is those who have exposure to a liberal arts education who come up with a solution the technicians just were unable to contemplate,” he said.

Akeia Smith, cybersecurity specialist, Cyber Development Directorate, earned her graduate degree in cybersecurity from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Smith said she was impressed with the workforce culture at DISA and she wanted to join the team.

“Before joining the government, I thought I had a good idea of DoD workforce culture and thought it would be a positive experience, but it is so much bigger,” she said. “At DISA, I work alongside those in uniform who are focused on cybersecurity analytics and plugged into the greater mission to protect our nation. It is much bigger and grander than I thought it would be.”

“Most importantly, DoD culture actually encourages us to pursue the challenges that interest us most,” she said. “When I tell my supervisor I am interested in a project, more often than not, she says, let’s see how we can fit that into your workload, and I really love that.”

Martin was enthused by the dialogue the visit established between McMurtrey, Tobin and the DISA staff.

“Exposing the students to DISA and the DoD mission through internships, scholarships for service, and partnerships between our institutions is key to the future of our workforce,” Martin said.



Posted February 6, 2020