The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) has been awarded a two-year, $400,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop a DHS Scholars program, aimed toward building a future workforce for federal and private organizations addressing biological and digital threats.
Biological threats include bacterial and viral pathogens and are categorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as Class A, B or C biothreat agents. Digital threats include malware, computer viruses, trojanized software and botnets. Both threat types can be weaponized for delivery to produce mass causalities, widespread panic and compromise U.S. command infrastructure.
Most of the funding will be focused on building a competitive DHS-based scholarship program and associated research training. The program will select a cohort of exceptional students for participation in the program. The overall research objective will be to develop a common threat assessment metric for biological and digital threats that can be applied by the DHS. If successful in meeting objectives in the first phase of this project, UTSA will be eligible for $500,000 in additional funding to support future DHS Scholars.
Funding will support tuition, fees and stipends for DHS Scholars in the areas of infection genomics, cloud computing and digital forensics. The UTSA Office of Undergraduate Research will announce a call for applications in early November with related coursework beginning in January.
“This is an incredible opportunity to engage undergraduate students in research to develop skills that provide a clear pathway for future employment in national security-based organizations,” said Donovan Fogt, director of the Office for Undergraduate Research.
DHS Scholars will be engaged in experiential learning within UTSA, led by Early Career Awardees Palden Lama and Xiaoyin Wang, assistant professors in the Department of Computer Science, and Darrell Carpenter, assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems and Cybersecurity.
First-year grant funding will support nine DHS Scholars enrolled in undergraduate courses, which will introduce students to cross-disciplinary teaching and research on biological and digital pathogens, informatics techniques and procedures useful for pathogenic outbreak investigations. Subsequent UTSA coursework will address biothreat agents and food defense, malware agents, cloud computing and big data analytics.
Early Career Awardees will collaborate with experts at two DHS Centers of Excellence, the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) at the University of Minnesota, and the Command, Control and Interoperability for Advanced Data Analysis (CCIADA) at Rutgers University. The DHS grant also will allow leading faculty in these areas, Rajendra Boppana, professor in the Department of Computer Science; Nicole Beebe, associate professor in the Department of Information Systems and Cybersecurity; and Mark Eppinger, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, to provide mentoring to Early Career Awardees for support and promotion of scientific research.
“This program is an excellent example of faculty across colleges working together on innovative interdisciplinary research in digital forensics, infection genomics and cloud computing that will really excite our students,” said Bernard Arulanandam, principal investigator, Jane and Roland Blumberg Professor in Biology and assistant vice president for research support. “This will broaden UTSA’s profile so that these and other faculty will be competitive for future funding in areas of interest to DHS and other federal agencies such as biological and digital defense.”
In addition to the completed coursework and experiential research experience, DHS student scholars will have opportunities to enhance their skills with paid internships at the DHS, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, the San Antonio Vaccine Center and at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The internships could open doors for the scholars to join the workforce at the DHS or other organizations working in these fields.