Founding director of new UAH cybersecurity center has big plans

dr-tommy-morris

Dr. Tommy Morris is founding director of the new UAH Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education.

Michael Mercier | UAH

Dr. Tommy Morris has joined The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) as the founding director of the new UAH Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education.

Dr. Morris will also teach as an associate professor in the University's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. He comes to UAH after seven years at Mississippi State University (MSU), where he was director of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Center, associate director of the Center for Computer Security Research, and associate director for the Distributed Analytics and Security Institute (DASI), in addition to being an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The allure of Huntsville as a cyber-city and previous experiences working with organizations at Redstone Arsenal while he was employed by MSU drew him to UAH, he says.

"Just those engagements opened my eyes to the potential here. Then when I visited for interviews I was blown away by Cyber Huntsville, the companies in the area and the cybersecurity work being done at UAH and in Huntsville," Dr. Morris says.

I want to build a pipeline that provides trained scientists and engineers to work at Redstone and at local companies. I also want to build a pipeline of research that solves problems for these organizations.

Dr. Tommy Morris
Director
Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education

"Huntsville is leading the way with cybersecurity education at the middle and high school levels and winning national cybersecurity contests at that level," he says. "As director of the UAH Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education, I want to build a pipeline that provides trained scientists and engineers to work at Redstone and at local companies. I also want to build a pipeline of research that solves problems for these organizations. I want UAH to be an increasingly important spoke in the cyber-city wheel."

There will be lots of opportunity to work with local companies and government agencies to solve a unique set of cybersecurity problems, Dr. Morris says. "I was impressed with the UAH cybersecurity faculty and hope to work closely with all of them on new and exciting research projects."

He has set an ambitious agenda for his new directorship at UAH.

"On the research front, I want to engage with organizations at Redstone Arsenal. My first step is to understand the specific research problems these organizations face," he says. "At the same time I will be meeting with UAH faculty, staff and students to understand UAH research capabilities. After this initial learning period, I hope to build a center which can offer research as a service for, and in collaboration with, these local organizations."

He plans to continue UAH's pursuit of research opportunities from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), National Security Agency (NSA), National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other national organizations with cybersecurity research needs.

"In the past I have had considerable success performing research for companies. I plan to continue to pursue such work," Dr. Morris says. "Research can take many different forms. Some projects produce journal articles on topics which hope to influence technology 10-plus years in the future, while some projects deliver hardware, software or tools that will be used as soon as they are available. I hope the UAH Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education will excel at all research across this spectrum."

On the education front, Dr. Morris says UAH has comprehensive programs in cybersecurity. The departments of Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the College of Business Administration offer courses in cybersecurity, and the same three groups also jointly offer a Master of Science degree in Cybersecurity (MSCBS).

"I want to work to ensure that these educational collaborations are effective at meeting student needs and to help UAH educators stay on top of the fast-changing field of cybersecurity," he says.

"Currently, students in Huntsville can take cybersecurity classes in middle school, high school and then at the university. Most of the cybersecurity courses at UAH are offered to students in the upper levels of the bachelor's degree or in graduate school," Dr. Morris says. "A personal goal of mine is to try to close this gap. I want to explore ways to offer cybersecurity classes or add cybersecurity topics to classes offered to freshmen and sophomores. I think closing the gap will leverage the secondary school efforts and keep more students in the field.

"A second personal goal of mine is to grow the cybersecurity doctoral program," he says. "I like to think faculty identify research problems and provide the theory. The students provide the creative solutions."

At at MSU, Dr. Morris was a founding investigator on the InSure project, a university collaboration between 10 NSA/DHS Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance (IA) Research to modernize graduate cybersecurity education through work on team-based, semester-long research projects. UAH will be joining InSure in the spring of 2016.

"We call this an agile research model, where students conduct quick look research to perform reconnaissance on new problems, test potential solutions and survey existing solutions in other fields which may be useful for technology transition," Dr. Morris says. "Some projects transition to longer-term research and development, while some wrap up in a single semester.

"InSure students get to work directly with engineers and scientists at NSA and other partner organizations. This provides students with a deep exposure to the organization and the problem and gives the organization a long look at the student," he says. "InSure also exposes rising undergraduates and new graduate students to cutting-edge problems for undergraduate, master's and doctoral level research."

While at MSU, Dr. Morris published over 50 journal articles, book chapters and conference papers related to cybersecurity. His primary field of expertise is cybersecurity for industrial control systems and power systems, and he has worked with electric utilities to develop cybersecurity requirements for new product installations, performed penetration testing on those products and developed intrusion detection systems for industrial control systems.

"For example, I was hired by a large electric utility to conduct penetration testing for microprocessor-based relays used at electric utilities, pipelines and many large manufacturing sites," Dr. Morris says. "On that project, we did five rounds of penetration testing. Each time, the manufacturer updated the devices to close security holes and add new security features.

"That product line is far more secure after the penetration testing and the benefits of the testing are quietly improving security at many industrial sites across multiple industries," he says.

While at MSU, Dr. Morris led funded research projects sponsored by the Mississippi Space Grant Consortium, Department of Energy, NASA, Southeast Regional Research Initiative, Pacific Gas and Electric Corp., Entergy Corp., Circadence Corp., National Science Foundation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the National Security Agency and the Office of Naval Research. Before joining MSU, he worked for 17 years as an engineer at Texas Instruments Inc.

"My background at TI has given me a customer focus," he says. "When working on research projects, I try to understand the product the customer hopes to buy and make sure I deliver that product on time and in their planned form."

Dr. Morris has a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University, and a Master of Science and doctoral degree in computer engineering from Southern Methodist University. He is married to Sayuri Beltran, an attorney, and the couple has two children, Tristan, 14, and Mathis, 12.

 

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