“Dakota State University is one of 10 universities across the country that has the cyber operations designation, the cyber defense designation and the cyber research designation,” said Ashley Podhradsky, DSU’s vice president for research and economic development.
Designations from whom? No less than the National Security Agency and the Homeland Security Department.
“We’re in elite company here in South Dakota, and our graduates are going all over,” Podhradsky said during Federal News Network’s Industry Exchange Cyber 2024. In fact, she added, DSU cybersecurity students have a 99.7% job placement rate after graduation, and many go to work directly for “three-letter government agencies.”
Cybersecurity, Podhradsky said, spans every domain with an online component, but the DSU program focuses heavily on national cybersecurity. Its Beacom College of Computer and Cyber Sciences enrolls 1,200 students at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. And the programs range widely.
“To us, [cyber] includes artificial intelligence and machine learning, and emerging areas like quantum computing — also the classical side of computer science and network security, cyber operations, cyber defense,” Podhradsky said. “We have expertise in all of those areas within The Beacom College.”
DSU programs also extend to younger students. So great is the cybersecurity workforce shortage in the United States, Podhradsky said, that DSU initiated what it calls the Governors Cyber Academy. It’s “a dual credit offering for high school juniors and seniors. They’re able to take college courses with our DSU faculty, and it counts towards their high school degree and also their college degree at a reduced rate.”
Creating well-rounded cybersecurity experts
DSU’s work goes beyond the classroom, Podhradsky said. In one example, the college worked with automaker Volvo and Sweden’s National Center for Applied AI, looking at edge computing and self-driving cars.
“We’re looking at the output from those self-driving vehicles, semiautonomous vehicles,” Podhradsky said. “And then we’re looking at what happens if someone poisons that data on the edge. How do you identify that? That way, we can remove that from the algorithm.”
Another DSU initiative is known as the Digital Forensics Lab. It concentrates on the underground, illicit economy that fuels much of the cyberthreat activity.
“We’re looking at ways that bad actors are able to compromise and acquire funds or other illicit materials and how we can help with that,” Podhradsky said. “It’s cyber, it’s physical, it’s social.”
She added, “Our very technical programs have a basis of computer science, because we want to have our graduates understand how to reverse engineer malware — so you can see what it was designed to do.”
But cyber is not only a purely science and engineering activity, Podhradsky said.
“We also want to have our students have the intellectual capacity to understand investigations and how to track down information,” she said. “So we have our cyber leadership and intelligence program. We have open source intelligence as well. Those that can think critically, those that can solve problems, those that are curious, they have a future in this space.”
DSU has modern facilities that would fit in anywhere, Podhradsky added. One example is the Applied Research Lab (ARL), managed and operated by the Dakota State University Applied Research Corporation (DARC). ARL is one of 17 labs at the main Madison, South Dakota, campus that are collectively called the “MadLabs.” Collectively, they’re called the “Mad Labs.” DARC is legally separate from the university so that it can work more closely with both national security organizations and contractors.
Podhradsky said people from the coastal hubs or Washington, D.C., might overlook a place like DSU.
“South Dakota’s a large state geographically, but it’s a small state with population. That equates to a lot of great things,” she said. Those include affordable houses on nice lots, low crime, good schools and access to many great outdoor features.
And, Podhradsky said, “You really do have that environment where you go downtown, and people know you and they wave and smile. Yeah, it’s hard to recruit to South Dakota. But once people are here, they don’t want to leave. It’s truly a great place.”