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Cybersecurity competition allows students to learn from intense real-world scenarios

Team Captain Nathaniel Hatfield piloted his team from the back of the room.

Recent computer science graduate Nathaniel Hatfield knew the April 1-3 Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Security Defense Competition (MACCDC) would be tough, as it always is.

Hyped as the most challenging region in the nation for cybersecurity, the MACCDC event was the only obstacle standing between Liberty’s team and an exciting bid to nationals. From their campuses, eight teams participated in a simulated cyberattack at a fake company with a common mission, to avert catastrophe.

“It’s a ton of fun, and I’m going to miss it,” said Hatfield, who has been a team member for each of his four undergraduate years, serving as captain in his junior and senior years. “It’s very real in terms of how they simulate it. We definitely felt immersed.”

The regional competition was the second event Liberty has participated in this year. On Feb. 27, the team emerged from the qualifying rounds in the top 8 out of 23 participating schools.

The Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency have designated Liberty University as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education. Liberty is also a recognized member of the National Cyberwatch Center, bolstering the teams’ credentials to participate in these intense cyber competitions.

At the regionals, each team simulated working for a large health care company and was charged with defending the organization’s assets against a volley of cyber hackers. These professional hackers, labeled the Red Team, sought to penetrate and disrupt the students’ systems in search of private and confidential healthcare information.

The teams were judged on their ability to maintain a corporate network while implementing incident responses, business injects, C-level executive debriefs, and more, all while juggling a barrage of system compromises. Liberty competed virtually from inside the School of Business’ Center for Cyber Excellence.

Upcoming captain Amanda Jones with team members

“This is the kind of situation that you may find yourself in in the future if you continue to work in this field,” Hatfield said. “They really want to push you back on your feet and see how you respond when you’re pressured. We try to do our best to rise to the occasion and meet the competition scenario pretty much full-on.”

Liberty placed first overall in the incident response category and third overall for the event, narrowly missing a bid to nationals. It also placed second in injects (business tasks that each team must complete), tied for second in C-level executive meeting (where team captains meet face-to-face with “CEOs” and brief them on the status of their information systems) ranking, and tied for sixth in service ranking.

“This was a very competitive year,” Hatfield said. “We saw a lot of really challenging injects, a lot of things we were prepared for, and a lot of things we weren’t prepared for. We responded very well to the challenges that arose.”

Rising senior Ben Gordon takes part in the regional MACCDC in April

Amanda Jones, a three-year veteran on the team and a computer science student, will be the team’s new captain. She credits the team’s former captains as well as Richard Bansley, who has served as the team’s faculty coach since 2018, and Dr. Michael Lehrfeld, the new executive director for the Center for Cyber Excellence, for her professional development.

“Making the decision to go to Liberty has absolutely changed the trajectory of where my career is going and where I think my future is going,” she said. “Without a question, I think we have one of the best computer science departments of any school, and I think that really can be chalked up to the quality of the faculty that we have, and the fact that they are all motivated by Training Champions for Christ and trying to facilitate spiritual leadership and fellowship.”

Hatfield said he is excited for what the future holds for the team.

“I think the team coming back next year is going to be heavier hitting and a more competitive team,” he said. “And (the team will) really just be a more equipped group of individuals, ready to go out and represent Liberty, represent God, and show that we, too, can be very effective cyber professionals in the industry and beyond.”

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