Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center tackles security challenges in a rapidly changing world

With more devices connected to the internet, homes have become smarter. It’s possible for a refrigerator to send shopping reminders, and to control the lights or thermostat while away from home. But as the things around us become smarter, there is a growing need to ensure that they also become safer. 

Texas A&M University has long been a leader in cybersecurity, but with the formation of the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center, the university looks to take on a larger role in tackling some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. 

Dr. Daniel Ragsdale, a retired Army colonel and distinguished Texas A&M alumni who received his Ph.D in computer science from Texas A&M in 2001, is leading those efforts as the director of the center, which is a joint endeavor between the university and the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES). Ragsdale joined Texas A&M in 2015 as a professor of practice after working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest decoration for non-career federal employees.

“We believe that Texas A&M can contribute not only to national and economic security but also to the social good. And that’s the really inspiring vision for our center,” Ragsdale said. 

Image of Daniel RagsdaleCybersecurity is a subject that covers a vast array of disciplines, with a definition so technical that Ragsdale believes the subject has been hard for people to grasp. Most people understand the data and information aspect of cybersecurity, but he believes many don’t fully understand what the industry calls the “internet of things.”

“As more and more components are connected, they can have an influence on the physical world,” he said. “Most people don’t fully appreciate what that means. Through hacking into any one of these systems, they can change something in the physical world. That’s very different from traditional information technology (IT). IT systems focus almost exclusively on processing, transmitting and storing data. If the information stored on these systems were stolen, modified or deleted, that could be highly disruptive. But with the internet of things and industrial controls systems, we’ve integrated components that don’t just manipulate data, they change the physical world around us, potentially in scary, life-threatening ways.”

To help explain what has become a quickly expanding field, Ragsdale defines cybersecurity as a study of the conflict and competition. The conflict takes place in code and in systems that people work with on a daily basis, but it’s more than just, as he puts it, bits and bytes. 

“We need to bring academic disciplines that aren’t only technically oriented into the cybersecurity community,” he said. “You can think of computer science, information technology, computer engineering and information management. Those are the people that address the software part. But to address the conflict and competition aspect of cybersecurity, we need to engage with folks that are involved in psychology, behavioral science, sociology, ethics, law and business. All of them, at least in part, address inherent conflict or competition that is a part of our human nature.”

That need for an interdisciplinary approach is why he believes TEES and Texas A&M are perfectly positioned to be at the forefront of cybersecurity research.

“Texas A&M has an internationally renowned group of faculty who are already engaged in groundbreaking cybersecurity research,” he said. “Additionally, the university benefits from having great facilities which enable much of this impressive research portfolio. And finally, it is a well-known fact that Texas A&M, a premier land-grant institution, has absolutely fantastic students. The combination of great faculty, great facilities and great students give me tremendous confidence that A&M will soon move to the very forefront of cybersecurity research and education.” 

With 16 colleges, more than 3,500 faculty members and almost $900 million in research annually, Texas A&M can bring cybersecurity into many disciplines. 

“We have always had pockets of excellence in a variety of places around the campus for folks doing cybersecurity research,” he said. “Now, because we have a center, we can connect the dots. As we have interactions with sponsoring agencies for example, they’re seeing there’s more of a holistic program in place now.”

The added focus on this field also brings benefits to Texas A&M students. Ragsdale said the cybersecurity industry is expecting tens of thousands of jobs in the near future that it currently doesn’t have a workforce to fill. He describes bringing a focus on cybersecurity to the students of Texas A&M almost a “moral obligation.” Going beyond students who may enter the actual cybersecurity field though, Ragsdale emphasizes that more and more fields require knowledge of cybersecurity.

Earlier this semester Texas A&M announced a minor in cybersecurity starting next academic year with a curriculum that involves courses from six different colleges. Ragsdale said there has already been off-the-charts interest from students. 

“We have students that are interested in this,” he said. “They are captivated and they know the significance of it. They get it. They look to us for curriculum offerings that will allow them to pursue something they’re interested in and at the same time prepare them for important work.” 

Working with those students is why Ragsdale decided to give up what he described as a great job that he loved at DARPA to come back to College Station.

“We were doing important work, hanging out with all the cool kids, making the world a better place,” he said. “But I had very little interaction with students. And I missed that so much. When this opportunity at Texas A&M presented itself, I said I could continue to do important work, but at the same time I can be engaged with young men and women in classroom settings, in lab settings and in club settings. Much as I expected, it has already been a tremendously rewarding and fulfilling experience for me.”