By Joanna Carver/Public Affairs Specialist
Mention the Department of Homeland Security and most people instantly think of surveillance and battling terrorism abroad. However, students in UTSA’s DHS Scholars program are learning how to combat digital and biological threats, which are lesser-known but no less dangerous.
“How do you learn about detecting threats prior to them happening?” Jane and Roland Blumberg Professor of Biology Bernard Arulanandam said.
That’s exactly what Arulanandam is teaching eight undergraduate students in the DHS-sponsored program, “Analysis and Training for Defense of Biological and Digital Threats,” which began in spring and is now kicking into high gear as the scholars delve into their research projects.
“They’re getting their hands on real biological and digital pathogens, and learning first-hand how to detect and combat these threats, especially against one of the scariest threats—the ones that aim to weaponize pathogens,” said Nicole Beebe, Associate Professor of Information Systems and Cyber Security, who is also mentoring the students.
Two students at UTSA this summer have a strong focus on tracking infectious diseases, especially E. coli, as well as the spread of disease through combat-related infections. Another three are working on digital threats research at UTSA in concert with Booz Allen Hamilton in San Antonio, while two more are conducting their research at Rutgers.
“What we have is an opportunity from Homeland Security to create a new type of researcher that is cross-trained in microbiology, computer science and information security,” said Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research Donovan Fogt.
The goal is to take students out of their comfort zones to make them skilled across multiple fields, which makes them valuable after graduation not just to the DHS but to many private contracting firms.
“As our troops move out of war theaters, these private contractors are moving in and they’ll want to pay for scientists that could develop these ideas,” Fogt said.
With recent international scares like the Ebola outbreak, a rapid rise in whooping cough cases as well as digital hacks at Sony and Target, these scholars are picking up skills that are already high in demand.
“These students are getting an opportunity to learn aspects of the other two disciplines that they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise,” Fogt said. “They’re really being thrust into new material and coming out on the other side with a true understanding of what the other disciplines bring to the table, but also how they fit within that investigative team.”