VCU is leading the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative's Central Virginia node, in which it will work with are universities to establish an ecosystem of cyber-related research, education and engagement.
VCU is leading the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative's Central Virginia node, in which it will work with are universities to establish an ecosystem of cyber-related research, education and engagement.

VCU Engineering poised to lead cyber network in Central Virginia

By Leila Ugincius
University Public Affairs
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When the Virginia Research Investment Committee voted in June to certify four regional cybersecurity nodes, Virginia Commonwealth University took the lead in creating the Central Virginia component.

The regional nodes are part of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, which called for the establishment of an ecosystem of cyber-related research, education and engagement, created by higher education institutions and businesses. The “hub” of this statewide network is the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Northern Virginia.

Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D.
Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D.

“The main purpose of this initiative is to make Virginia nationally and internationally a global leader in cybersecurity, cyber physical systems, data technologies, autonomy and related emerging technologies,” said Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., acting director of the Central Virginia node and professor and chair of the VCU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering.

The Central Virginia node comprises VCU, the University of Virginia, Virginia State University, Longwood University, Virginia Union University and J. Sargeant Reynolds, John Tyler and Piedmont community colleges.

“We are by far the largest node because we have two major research universities under one node, VCU and UVA,” Topsakal said.

Topsakal spoke with VCU News about the impact this network could have on the state and VCU’s role in it.

What is the purpose of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative? How will the state ultimately benefit from it?

There is a huge demand for cyber-related jobs coming in the next five to 10 years. Amazon is starting its second headquarters in Northern Virginia. They need about 25,000 new graduates in the next 10 years, and that's just Amazon. The demand only gets larger. The purpose of the CCI is to help the state meet this workforce need and continue to attract industry. We have three areas of focus: research, workforce development and commercialization. Our job is to work with our partners to create programs for workforce development.

How do you envision VCU working with its Central Virginia counterparts?

Research partnerships are a major connector. The University of Virginia is taking the lead on the research pillar. Several UVA centers are taking part in this initiative, including the Link Lab, the Cyber Innovation & Society Institute and the Center for Business Analytics, along with VCU centers such as the VCU Center for Analytics and Smart Technologies housed in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, and the VCU Cybersecurity Center, housed in the Computer Science department. VCU and UVA will conduct the major research activity in the Central Virginia node.

Our other partners will work more on developing programs related to education and workforce development. We will have new courses for undergraduates and graduate students, as well as professional development and certificate programs. We’re interested in programs for community colleges and making it easy for students in these fields to transition from community college to a four-year university. There are many moving parts at the moment.

Who from the College of Engineering will be involved with this initiative?

The departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science are playing major roles. More than 50% of the faculty from both departments are already heavily involved. We have many research areas that are closely related to the goals of the CCI: the internet of things, cybersecurity and cyber physical systems, to name a few. We’re very active in research for smart cities.

For example, we have a team developing ambulance drones that deliver and administer [naloxone] to a victim of opioid overdose for situations when a conventional ambulance cannot get there fast enough. You just fly these drones autonomously, very fast, and they can deliver an injection guided by a medical professional who is watching remotely through a camera on the drone.

As the CCI develops, we also see roles for the School of Business, the School of Medicine and the School of the Arts, as well as the College of Humanities and Sciences. Also, city planning and urban planning. The digital economy is relevant to all of these disciplines and there is a place at the table for many different thinkers.

What are VCU's next steps?

We’re developing short- and long-term strategic plans to present to the Virginia Research Investment Committee and will soon be drafting a budget. All of our partners have documented activities we are already doing related to the CCI and the node’s proposed budget is about $6 million in year one. As part of the proposal, we will continue to identify activities we’re already investing in related to CCI. The state funding is to help align all these activities under the three focus areas of the CCI — research, workforce development and commercialization.

What would you like to add?

This is a great opportunity for VCU and for the College of Engineering. VCU Engineering is one of Virginia’s younger engineering programs, but we’re a recognized leader in creating and building new technologies. Our role in the CCI will give people around the state a chance to join us in collaborations as we advance our role as a leading technology institute. It will introduce many people to the exciting things happening here.

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