An Octopus’ Guide to Cybersecurity

 

There is a lot students can learn about cybersecurity from an octopus.

The underwater creatures are masters of mimicking their surroundings to both snag their next meal and stay hidden from predators. There’s an obvious application there for hackers snooping around a network, says Dr. Melba Horton, Assistant Professor of Biology at Florida Polytechnic University.

“The whole point for hackers is to get in without anyone knowing you’re there,” Horton explains.

Horton’s background is in marine biology and teaching life sciences. The squishy, organic world of biology would seem a world removed from the cold, practical fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). And, admittedly, the learning curve has been steep at times.

“I’m learning with them,” Horton says. But every class at Florida Poly points back to STEM and biology is no exception. Incoming students expecting biology to be just a core class to check off on the way to applied research are pleasantly surprised when they receive their first project.

“I knew most of the students were just coming in for a grade. So I developed strategies to make them interested,” Horton says.

The big project for the semester begins with students broken out into groups by major and concentrations. These groups are tasked with developing a project that applies biology to their major. The octopus’ ability to change colors according to its surroundings was the inspiration for a cybersecurity student who proposed a way for hackers to mimic a computer background. Another group of engineering students are experimenting with a form of algae called diatoms that could make solar panels cheaper and more efficient. Health informatics students designed a program that tracked the spread of cancer.

Another important aspect of any class at Florida Poly is real world application. For these projects, students are required to seek expert input and mentoring from a professor connected to their major. Just like the real workforce, students are forced to work together, gain consensus and contribute to their project. The completed project is presented to their peers and professors also weigh in. The end result has been some groundbreaking projects with real promises. The solar panel project, for instance, was presented at the 2016 Florida Academy of Sciences Meeting.

For many students, though, the real benefit of taking biology at Florida Poly is the introduction to the unique educational culture at the school. Travis Hills worked on a project involving wearable technology to change lighting and music in a room. The access to equipment and resources to support the project was part of what he discussed with students when he went back to his high school recently.

“That’s one of the biggest things in Florida Poly’s favor. It’s not like a lot of universities,” Hills says.

Horton echoes that belief.

“Most universities will say let’s do the basics first, then your junior or senior year get involved in your major,” Horton says. “We expect you to start working on your major your freshman year.”

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