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C.S. Grad Earns Top Award For Internship Project

C.S. Student's Poster Takes Top Prize at Idaho N.L.

Sean Salinas Impresses Judges With Electric Car Security Research

SOCORRO, N.M. – Graduate student Sean Salinas made an impact with his cyber security research during his summer internship at Idaho National Laboratory. The 2016 graduate won the top award at the summer-ending research symposium for his poster titled "Diagnostic Security Module for Plug-In Electric Vehicles."

Salinas, who earned his bachelor's in computer science in May 2016, is staying at Tech for his master's degree. This was Salinas' second summer internship in Idaho and he is planning on returning for a third during the summer of 2017.

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Sean Salinas, class of 2016, won an award for his summer research project at Idaho National Lab. He has returned to start his master's program in computer science. He will continue to work via distance for INL and is planning on returning next summer for another internship. 

 

More than 300 interns presented posters at the symposium in mid-August. Winners and runners-up were named in four categories. He won the "Best Securing and Modernizing Critical Infrastructure" competition.

"A big fear in the infrastructure/security realm is that malware from cars will spread to the grid," Salinas said. "With electrical vehicles, you're plugging into the grid. This new security tool will monitor all the systems and look for indicators of malware, quarantine it and keep it from spreading."

Salinas developed a prototype, which he will test this fall as a remote employee of the national lab.

"It's working perfectly in a test environment," he said. "We are now working on it with an electric vehicle and charger."

Salinas worked mostly independently at Idaho National Laboratory. He had a technical lead on the project who served as his supervisor, but he was free to pursue a solution on his own.

"Their idea is, 'We hire smart people to tell us what to do'," he said. "This is what we are trying to accomplish. What software can we use? What protocols should we use? It was a great working environment."

Salinas has been interested in computers since he was in elementary school. His father, who also graduated from Tech with a degree in computer science, gave young Sean an Intel 8086 computer and a book on programming in Pascal when he was six years old.

"I kind of grew my knowledge as time went on," he said. "I had one of the only computer science exhibits at the Science Fair in 1993 or 1994. I got first place – and the only place – in computer science in elementary school."

Salinas graduated from Sandia High School in Albuquerque in 2004. He took a few years off from school before enrolling at New Mexico Tech. He is not sure what his master's project will involve, but he says it will definitely be in cyber security.

"Malware is pretty interesting to me," he said. "It seems like a good fit as I funnel down toward picking a thesis project. Cyber security and infrastructure grids present an interesting research area."

Salinas is enrolled in the Scholarship For Service, or SFS, program. As an SFS student, he received a year of support as an undergrad and two years of support as a grad student. SFS participants also get a laptop, travel funds, a research project, and professional development course work. Upon finishing his master's, Salinas will be required to work three years for a government agency.

"I'm supported the whole way," Salinas said. "I am getting paid to go to school. The commitment I made at the end, where I do government service, is basically a guaranteed job. It's not that I have to serve. It's that I get serve."

The SFS program provides participants an annual stipend that covers tuition, housing and living expenses, Salinas said.

"I don't have to worry about having a job or going into debt," he said. "My full-time job is being a student."

New Mexico Tech has a course for SFS students in professional development. Salinas and other SFS students also go to an annual job fair in Washington, D.C. Salinas said that employers had more jobs available than there were students at the most recent job fair.

"This is the best deal I've found," he said. "I'd recommend this to any student interested in computer science."

Dr. Lorie Liebrock, Computer Science Professor and Dean of Graduate Studies, has been the principal investigator since the program's inception in 2003. Dr. Dongwan Shin joined as co-P.I. a few years ago. Overall, more than 50 Tech students have successfully completed the SFS program.

"They have found jobs all over the nation in government agencies," Dr. Shin said. "They are at the NSA, the FBI, Sandia National Lab, Los Alamos, Idaho National Lab and many other agencies like the Department of Defense. All of them are working in the cyber security field, which is a basic requirement for SFS students here."

Shin said the SFS program not only guarantees a job, but is an excellent preparation for a career. SFS students at Tech enter as a cohort, take classes together and work on research projects together.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the SFS program provides funding to universities that have been identified as Centers for Academic Excellence for Information Assurance Education, of which NMT is one.

– NMT –