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SFS Grad Turns Opportunity into Award-Winning Research

Elizabeth Wanic completed her Naval Postgraduate School degree in computer science through the university’s Scholarship for Service program. Graduating from NPS, September 21, Wanic turned an anthropology background into an award-winning thesis on cyber deterrence, recognized with two quarterly student awards.

For the past 17 years, the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) has offered a Scholarship for Service (SFS) program for its master’s degree in computer science with a specialization in cybersecurity and cyber operations, providing a direct pathway to increase the size and diversity of the nation’s cybersecurity talent pool.

And through the scholarship’s “Monarch” option, the program has successfully transformed students from wildly-diverse backgrounds into respected leaders in the cybersecurity field, contributing across the national security space.

Take computer science graduate Elizabeth Wanic, for example, a distinguished graduate of the Summer 2018 cohort graduating on September 21. Wanic is a textbook example of the continuing the success of the program, earning two respected academic awards for her research, the NPS Outstanding Academic Achievement Award for DOD Civilian, and the Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper Award, recognizing outstanding academic and leadership accomplishments in the study of computer science.

“I was not expecting this at all,” said Wanic. “I worked very hard while I was here, and even though it is great to get recognition for that, at the same time, I know a lot of my peers are also doing great things and deserve recognition as well.”

Wanic’s award-winning thesis examines existing deterrence theory and discusses its applicability in cyberspace. It sought to clarify misconceptions between cyber weapons and conventional weapons and outlines the implications these differences can have on the effectiveness of cyber weapons as a deterrent. Wanic also offers a compelling analysis on the motivations and expected outcomes of notional cyber operations taken by the U.S. and its adversaries, including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

“I wanted to do something that combined my past experiences with what I am doing now,” said Wanic. “I previously worked for the United Nations for seven years, and I felt like this was a great way to join the two together.

“It started when I attended a seminar with Dr. Neil Rowe, who brought up his work with different international perspectives of cyber security and warfare,” she continued. “After talking to him, I was able to narrow it down to this specific topic.”

Rowe, a professor in NPS’ Department of Computer Science, would go on to serve as Wanic’s thesis advisor on her research, who said one of the biggest challenges in conducting this research was how to determine “different deterrence strategies and how they relate to different countries.”

“All of our students come here and learn new areas of expertise, and Wanic was able to take all the technical work she did in the classroom and apply it to solve new problems that could make a difference at the policy level,” said Rowe. “Most policy makers don’t understand too much on the difference between things such as nuclear and cyber deterrence, and Wanic’s thesis did a great job in clarifying that.”

Throughout her research, Wanic explored several possible deterrence strategies, including stockpiling cyber weapons, deception, indicting individuals, imposing sanctions, creating international agreements, retaliating with conventional weapons, improving defenses, developing automated counterattack mechanisms, and mounting offensive cyber actions, with her thesis ending with possible U.S. policy recommendations.

Perhaps equally impressive to her research, though, is Wanic’s background and experiences prior to enrolling at NPS, and how she was able to successfully transition into the cyber realm.

Wanic’s career with the United Nations (UN) provided her a variety of diverse experiences – a speechwriter in the New York headquarters focused on peace-keeping, and an administrative officer in the Joint Operations Center to name a couple. She worked for the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, participating in efforts to remove chemical weapons from Syria in 2013, and she even embarked on two peace-keeping missions in the African countries of Mali and the Central African Republic.

“During my last job in the Central African Republic, one of the things I was in charge of was the technology side of the mission, and we had people that wanted to bring in more drone surveillance and other advanced technologies. At the time I was uninformed about the specifics,” admitted Wanic. “Over the course of several months, I got to know much more about the technology that was directed to the mission, and how nobody knew how to use it. This wasted opportunity made me think that, even in a really remote place, technology is critically important to everything that we are doing.”

This experience inspired her, she said, to make the career change into a technology-related field. And during a chance encounter with a former classmate from her studies in anthropology as an undergraduate, she learned of the SFS program, and the opportunity to obtain a master’s degree in computer science in exchange for two years of service in a government organization.

“In the beginning, I felt very lost because it was such a flood of new information, but with the help of classmates and professors and some hard work, I was able to succeed,” said Wanic. “I have gotten so much out of my time at NPS, I’ve learned an entire universe of terminology and understanding about cybersecurity.

“Everyone can read news articles and hear what is being said, but to really understand what it all means has been really enlightening,” she added. “I know a lot more now about the U.S. perspective on all of these issues, because that perspective is a lot more focused here [at NPS]. It leads to an experience that you just can’t get anywhere else.”

Although her transition from anthropology into computer science was a challenging one, Wanic says her experiences at the U.N., although mostly non-technical in nature, provided her with a foundation that greatly benefited her chosen research topic.

“When you work at the U.N. you work with a very diverse group of co-workers who all provide a different perspective on every topic, even in your everyday discussion,” said Wanic. “You look at the issue through a more global perspective. With deterrence, you need to be able to see from the other side’s eyes. I felt like working with a lot of international colleagues really helped me gain a more global perspective.”

Following her graduation at NPS, Wanic will begin working for the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City, focused on cyber threat intelligence for a national incident response team. Her responsibilities will include assessing and protecting vulnerabilities, as well working with incident responders and other team members to improve security from the ground up.

“It is a lot of analyzing and looking at the overall picture, which is more along the lines of what I had been doing prior. I liked the fact that I am going to be able to combine this analysis type work with some more technical work,” said Wanic.

“It’s a big step following my time at NPS and being recognized for my time here makes me proud, not only as a woman in a male-dominated field but as someone who is older starting a new career,” she continued.

“No matter what your background is, if you work hard and have the capability, you can achieve anything,” she added proudly.

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