Business Matters

Mason and Northrop Grumman Work Together to Build Innovative Cyber Security Degree Program

Photo illustration by Marcia Staimer
Photo illustration by Marcia Staimer


By Damian Cristodero

When Peggy Brouse read a story this summer about hackers shutting down the engine of a cruising Jeep Cherokee, she immediately emailed Mike Papay.

Papay is vice president and chief information security officer at Northrop Grumman. Brouse is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering. The two had developed a partnership during the past two years while establishing George Mason’s new undergraduate cyber security engineering program. So when she saw the story, she knew it perfectly confirmed the need for the program they designed together.

“What we need to do is start looking at engineering our systems better to make them cyber resilient as much as possible,” Brouse said. “We don’t have people who are really educated to do that. We really need to educate students who can understand this problem and do something about it.”

Mason’s program—the first of its kind in the United States—is well-aligned to the challenge because it was developed collaboratively with the kinds of businesses it is designed to serve: Papay; Hank Orejuela, president of Applied Systems Analytics; and Randy West, president of Robison International, are directly involved in the process.

As a result, Mason now offers a program that will produce graduates specifically trained for the next frontier—defending against cyber attacks on large systems such as water treatment plants, the electrical grid, government, transportation and energy industries, and, yes, even the computers in our automobiles and airplanes.

The program completed its first semester in May with 84 students. More than 100 have applied for the 2015-16 school year.

“This is Mason looking ahead and seeing the future,” Papay said. “The only way to defend against (these attacks) is to have engineers who understand how to build a system that is resilient and secure.”

Federal spending for cyber security is expected to grow to $14 billion in 2016, according to Reuters. With that growth comes demand for trained engineers, especially in the tech-heavy areas of Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Mason is a natural hub for cyber security training. The university established its first cyber security research center in 1990, and was designated by the National Security Agency as a center of academic excellence in information assurance and cyber defense.

“George Mason gets it,” Papay said in March when the university formally announced the program at a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Sen. Mark Warner.

Mason always has had a strong relationship with its corporate partners, which underwrite summer internships and provide adjunct professors. The development of the cyber security engineering program is a bold statement of the university’s partnership with the business community.

“The program is really driven by industry needs,” said Sharon Caraballo, associate dean for undergraduate programs at the Volgenau School. “The position of cyber security engineer is a job they needed to fill for which there was no existing educational program. So they came to us looking for a solution to that problem. They worked very tightly with us … not just on the idea of the program but the complete curriculum, which goes into the individual courses. That was really unprecedented as far as individual involvement.”

Papay was part of the dean’s advisory board at the Volgenau School and attended monthly meetings as the curriculum was established.

“He walked through everything with me one-by-one as far as advising students, walking though the course work, meeting the faculty,” Brouse said.

Papay credits Brouse, a systems and software engineer with a PhD in information technology and engineering from Mason, with propelling the program.

“This is really a type of systems engineering that hasn’t been done before but is built on the skills Peggy has, understanding the architecture of how to build a large system,” Papay said. “She’s a great leader for the program.”