Argonne National Laboratory

High-schooler solves college-level security puzzle from Argonne, sparks interest in career

By Justin H.S. BreauxApril 5, 2017

Jocelyn Murray was waiting for computer parts to arrive when her high school teacher, Mrs. Doren, posted a link to an Argonne cyber security puzzle on the screen for the class to solve.

Unaware that this was a college-level puzzle, 15-year-old Jocelyn set about making her way through the binary code and cryptic messages until she completely hacked the image.

“When I first looked at the puzzle I thought, ‘there’s no way I can do this,’” said Murray. “But we worked on it in class and because I was able to go at my own pace, it was more understandable.”

Creating touchpoints like these – opportunities for students to work on and gain confidence in cyber security concepts – is the goal of the cyber workforce pipeline currently in development at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. A series of activities aimed at high-schoolers all the way to early-career professionals, this pipeline provides unique experiences that give students direction on their paths to cyber security careers.

“When I first looked at the puzzle I thought, ‘there’s no way I can do this,’” But we worked on it in class and because I was able to go at my own pace, it was more understandable.”

The cyber security puzzles were a lead-up to the second annual Argonne Cyber Defense Competition, which is an all-day college-level competition where individual (Blue) teams defend their electricity and water grid networks from the attacking (Red) teams. The Red teams, made up of college students and industry experts, exploit every vulnerability in the Blue teams’ control systems in order to shut them down.

Shortly after Jocelyn submitted the solution, organizers of the Cyber Defense Competition invited Jocelyn and her team to come team to come to the lab to learn about the cyber defense culture during the event. They were the youngest members of the Pink Team group, an observer group made up of those still learning the skills to play the role of attackers.

Jocelyn’s jaw dropped. She quickly worked with her teacher to help make the opportunity happen.

“Jocelyn is such an excellent role model,” said Patti Doren, Jocelyn’s Computer Science and Technology teacher at Wakefield Memorial High School.

Doren, who spent 30 years in the defense industry before becoming a teacher, said she had decided to begin using her experiences to guide more young women "just like her" into computer science and cyber security.

On April 1, Jocelyn and her team got a front-row seat as 15 competing colleges and universities from different parts of the country faced off.  For eight hours, Blue Teams defended their power and water delivery services and deflected the constant barrage of network attacks by the Red Team.

Although simulated, the threat is very real. Defending against and anticipating attacks on the nation’s critical infrastructure is a growing concern. Not only are these aging systems increasingly connecting their control systems to the Internet, but increased retirement is creating a larger gap between those with knowledge of those systems and those trained to defend them.

The Cyber Defense Competition is just one of the ways Argonne is helping to build bridges over that gap.

“Reaching out and connecting high school students to college-level activities excites and motivates them,” said Meridith Bruozas, who heads educational programs and outreach at Argonne. “Programs like the Cyber Defense Competition further help them to achieve their potential in the ever-growing cyber field and become the next generation of cyber security professionals."

No matter the outcome, Jocelyn, her team and her teacher are committed to keeping up the momentum. They are already looking to register for other cyber competitions in Massachusetts. And Jocelyn, noticing that only three out of her 20 computer science classmates are girls, has made it her mission to get more of them involved.

“I always try to convince girls I sit with in homeroom to come join cyber security club,” said Murray. “Sure, you need passion and you can’t just quit, but I think with a good introduction they’ll see how much fun it can be.”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.

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