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Virtual victor: NDSU grad student a whiz in male-dominated field of cybersecurity

Chengyao Tang, a North Dakota State University graduate student, takes part in the National Cyber League competition held Nov. 3-5. Tang was NDSU's top scorer and and one of three NDSU students to place in the top 15 percent in the competition, NDSU computer science assistant professor Jeremy Straub said. (North Dakota State University Photo / Special to The Forum)

FARGO - Chengyao Tang has proven that she can more than just hack it in the male-dominated world of cybersecurity.

The North Dakota State University graduate student was not only the school's top contestant in the National Cyber League competition, held Nov 3-5, but her skills place her and two other NDSU students in the top 15 percent in the nation.

Jeremy Straub, an assistant professor in NDSU's computer science department, said Tang's achievement should encourage other women to enter the "extraordinarily" male-dominated fields of computer science and cybersecurity.

Tang, who also goes by the name Denise (a name she picked up in her early English classes in Beijing, China), said watching television shows with plots built around computer science nurtured an early interest in the field.

She said the NCL experience has "definitely" fanned her consideration of cybersecurity as a career, and that she is considering doing research on how data mining could potentially unearth cyber threats.

The other two NDSU students placing in the NCL's top 15 percent are Isaac Burton, a junior computer engineering student, and Steven Karschnia, a freshman computer science student.

The 23-year-old Tang picked up her undergraduate degree in computer science at NDSU and is now seeking a master's degree in computer science. The Fargoan was the last person to join the NDSU team for the cyber competition. But she took advantage of the training opportunities offered by the NCL since August to bolster her cyber skills.

"I feel like that all the knowledge that I learned during this competition is a prize for me," Tang said.

The NCL is a nonprofit that was founded in 2011 to provide training for participants to develop, practice and prove their cybersecurity knowledge and skills using the most modern simulations.

NCL offers "gymnasiums" for training, and then participants demonstrate their newly honed skills in individual and team competitions. The training and competitions help participants gain skills needed by industry, the government and the military, and addresses a lack of cybersecurity professionals nationally.

Straub said the training simulations put students into situations where they attack or defend from cyber attacks.

"What I think is so neat about it, is the fact that it's really very much tied to the types of things you'd see in the work force," Straub said. The skills learned "transfer so perfectly."

Straub said the NCL also produces "scouting reports" on participants, so prospective employers can learn the strengths and skills of the people that participated "and kind of look for people that match their needs, based on that."

Only about 15 percent of NDSU's computer science students are women, Straub said.

Tang's results at this year's NCL competition will do her in good stead when she goes job hunting, he said.

"For an area that's so male-dominated right now, to be a woman ... in that type of position, certainly would be very beneficial for her" when she's seeking work in a year or two, he said.

Tang encourages other women to join her in changing the gender mix in computer science.

"I think we can actually do a very good job in this field," she said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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