U.S. Department of Defense command USCYBERCOM presents top two awards to VCU Computer Science team at 2024 CyberRECon

Led by Irfan Ahmed, Ph.D., computer science associate professor, the team of students were recognized for the development of their NAZAR intrusion detection system, leading to an on-going education partnership between VCU and USCYBERCOM.

A team of five representatives from the VCU College of Engineering Department of Computer Science were recently presented with the top two awards and a special military honor at the 2024 CyberRECon Symposium, an event hosted by the U.S. Department of Defense command USCYBERCOM at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Irfan Ahmed, Ph.D., computer science associate professor in the VCU College of Engineering, led a team of four VCU students in the competition: doctoral students Muhammad Ahsan, Nehal Ameen and Adeen Ayub, as well as postdoctoral fellow Wooyeon Jo. The competition was an opportunity for the students to put their skills and knowledge to the test in real-world scenarios, ultimately contributing to real cybersecurity solutions for the United States of America.

USCYBERCOM is one of the 11 unified combat commands of the U.S. Department of Defense. The Cyber Research and Education Conference, or “CyberRECon,” is the flagship program for USCYBERCOM’s office of academic engagements. 

The conference challenges teams to tackle top USCYBERCOM mission challenges, developing their own original solutions to the real-world problems facing our nation today. Teams from 17 schools participated in this year’s CyberRECon, working on projects in four categories: the Hunter Award for research with offensive Cyberspace Operations applications; the Analyst Award for research focused on threat actors or intelligence analysis methodologies; the Strategist Award for research focused on Cyber Policy and strategy; and the category VCU competed in, the Guardian Award for research with defensive Cyberspace Operations applications.

Within the Guardian category, Ahmed and his team of students developed NAZAR, a stateful intrusion detection system. It consists of two parts, one at the network level and one at the device level. Together, they enable the user to monitor malicious activity on the control logic. The VCU team worked with a USCYBERCOM mentor—Greg Novak, program manager at the Idaho National Laboratory Cybercore Integration Center—who helped guide the project and provide recommendations.

The VCU team not only won the Guardian Category Award for NAZAR, but they also received the “Best in Show” award: the coveted Commander’s Cup. 

Four-star General Timothy D. Haugh, commander of USCYBERCOM, presented the awards to the VCU team. Haugh also surprised Ahmed and his team by presenting them with a special military honor—a challenge coin, which represents honor, appreciation, and excellence.

“During the entire event, it felt like VCU was everywhere,” says Ahmed. “Our students were just all over the conference participating in different components. Everyone came up to talk with us and we just kept receiving awards. It was incredible; we did not expect so much.”

Though the USCYBERCOM conference was just one weekend, a new, on-going educational partnership agreement between USCYBERCOM and the VCU College of Engineering will provide VCU students with technical support, continued research and education over the course of the next three years.

“For example, through this new partnership, if we require some type of equipment or technology, they will be able to supply that for our use,” says Ahmed. It also applies to mentorship, research project collaboration, career development and more.

Ahmed oversees the Security and Forensics Engineering (SAFE) Lab at VCU, where students are active in both offensive and defensive Cybersecurity research. Ahsan, Ameen, Ayub, and Jo are all active students in the lab, which is fully-equipped with Desktop computers, laboratory-scale ICS testbeds from a variety of vendors (including GE, Mitsubishi, Allen-Bradley, Siemens, Schneider Electric, Omron, WAGO and AutomationDirect), 3D printers, and access to a data center of high-performance computing infrastructure. 

“We have a lot of equipment related to industry systems,” says Ahmed. “By gaining experience in the SAFE lab, our students were prepared for CyberRECon, ready to help find and mitigate cyber vulnerabilities.”

Not only did the USCYBERCOM competition give these four VCU students a hands-on opportunity to explore and solve for true cyber vulnerabilities, but the on-going partnership will allow them and other students to build upon their research and seek out new opportunities within the cybersecurity spaces.

The Department of Computer Science provides undergraduate and graduate students with the opportunity to perform real-world research as soon as they enroll. From designing algorithms to solving complex computing problems to working with cutting-edge AI technology, students gain understanding of many important computing topics. Browse videos and recent news from the Department of Computer Science to discover how the College of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University prepares the next generation of scientists and engineers for the challenges of the future.