Interdisciplinary Team of Students Tackles Cybersecurity Competition

Four students present in front of a panel at a cybersecurity competition.
Photo provided by Columbia School of International and Public Affairs
November 19, 2019

Two weeks before the Atlantic Council’s Cyber 9/12 Student Challenge, competitors were given a mock intelligence report on a simulated cyberattack that they would have to address before a panel of judges. For the interdisciplinary team of four Wellesley students who traveled to Columbia University to take part in the Atlantic Council’s competition a strong bond forged through intense preparation led them to finish second in a field of 31 teams and to win an award for best teamwork.

The annual competition, held on November 8 and 9 and hosted by a different institution each year, features two days of challenges, keynote speakers, technology demonstrations, and opportunities to meet and learn from public- and private-sector cybersecurity professionals. For students interested in the field, the challenge offers lessons in current cybersecurity capabilities and vulnerabilities, prioritizing assets, and navigating cybersecurity incidents and escalation scenarios.  

The Wellesley team of Jun Ru Anderson ’21, Faith Davenport ’20, Samantha Lai ’21, and Jenny Tang ’21 developed decision documents that detailed how they would address the scenario, focusing on policy responses that addressed geopolitical norms as well as technical best practices, and proposing new cybersecurity standards. Wellesley’s team was one of just two all-female teams at the event, and they competed against many teams made up of graduate students.

“It was definitely intimidating going up against graduate students at first,” said Tang, a computer science and political science major. “A number of them had in-depth and specific knowledge, and a number of them have worked in cyber policy, cybersecurity, or in government agencies.” 

“I wasn’t nervous to be going up against graduate students, but I was surprised that we came in ahead of Harvard’s Kennedy School, because they seemed very confident after the first round,” said Anderson, a computer science and mathematics major.

Lai, a political science major, attributes the team’s success in part to Wellesley’s focus on the liberal arts. “In many rounds, we had judges ask us questions that weren’t necessarily the most related to cybersecurity,” she said. “We were able to turn up with answers based on some random nugget of information we’d learned in class. This experience reminded me of the importance of taking a wide range of classes and knowing a little bit of everything.”

“We all brought different expertise to the competition,” said Davenport, a political science and statistics major. “Most other teams were made up of four members all from either one field or the other. I believe it was our ability to evaluate cybersecurity policy recommendations through both a political and computer science lens that fueled our success.”

Wellesley’s team members were happy with their performance and invigorated by the opportunity to learn about policymaking and meet other students interested in cybersecurity, but they also expressed a hope that the field will become more diverse.

“One speaker during a panel pointed out that the room, including judges, panelists, coaches, and competitors, was 70 percent men, which is unbalanced but still better than most rooms in the field, and that this imbalance needed to change,” said Tang. “I appreciated that.”

Photo caption: From L-R, Samantha Lai '21, Faith Davenport '20, Jenny Tang '21, and Jun Ru Anderson '21 field questions from a panel during the recent cybersecurity competition they attended at Columbia University.