Student designs cyber defense major

Tompkinsville junior Morgan Taylor is currently studying for the Certified Ethical Hacking Exam as part of her self designed major in cyber defense. The CEHE is one of the last steps towards getting professionally certified in cyber defense. Josh Newell/HERALD

Brittiny Moore

Tompkinsville junior Morgan Taylor was 5 years old when she hacked into a school’s database while visiting her father, a teacher, at work.

As a joke, Taylor’s parents took her home to watch the movie “Hackers,” a ’90s film about a group of computer hackers. For Taylor, this was the spark that ignited a flame. 

Taylor expanded her love for technology through high school. She was the runnerup for an award for women in technology, worked as an engineer her senior year and even began research at WKU as a secondary student.

Now, Taylor is on her way to making her tech goals a reality. Taylor is currently undergoing the process of making her own highly specialized major in cyber defense through the Honors College.

“I’ve honestly just always loved it,” Taylor said. “Nowadays, you’re always on technology.”

Cyber defense incorporates many different fields including penetration testing, a way to evaluate computer systems, database management and security and data mining, Taylor said.

Taylor is currently focusing on data mining but said the major is full of opportunities.

“It’s just so diverse. I could work with a software company today and be doing something completely different than my technology job at Western,” Taylor said. “I go around the country setting up technology for different companies.”

Taylor was able to create a cyber defense major with computer science, psychology and honors components through the Honors College that would give her experience in each of those fields. Taylor was able to choose which courses would best benefit her and add them to her degree requirements.

Upon approval from the Honors College, Taylor will officially be the only student on campus to major in cyber defense.

Taylor said studying psychology is important for her cyber defense major as she’s able to learn patterns of behavior and to investigate signs of future actions.

“They’re important, especially with the tracking of certain individuals and personality types,” Taylor said. “In cyber defense, if you’re on the research side, you see a lot of patterns between people.”

Part of Taylor’s major requires her to continue research with a faculty advisor. In collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI, she is currently data mining Twitter and running analytics in attempt to make predictions about possible future events.

Taylor’s current project is working to track the Zika virus. Since Taylor was involved in the creation of the Ebola tracking app by WKU student Armin Smailhodzic, she has prospects of creating a similar app for the Zika virus.

“Right now we’re working on using the same equations and prediction charts to predict the Zika virus,” Taylor said. “This is about to be really big in the United States. We want to see how many states have been affected and what our growth rate is.”

Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said the spread of the Zika virus has been explosive since 2015 when it was first detected in Brazil, according to NPR.

On Feb. 22, a team of U.S. government disease detectives launched a research project in Brazil designed to “determine whether the Zika virus is really causing a surge of serious birth defects,” according to NPR.

Providing security and helping people stay safe are two of the reasons Taylor decided to major in cyber defense.

“Now, knowing that I can be the one that can help someone stay safe with their finances or stay safe with their personal information to keep their kids safe, I want to be that person,” Taylor said.

Taylor felt extremely motivated to major in cyber defense after certain people in her life had told her that her dream was unreasonable.

“I was told that I couldn’t so many times growing up that once I realized that I actually loved technology, I realized that ‘couldn’t’ shouldn’t be in anyone’s vocabulary,” Taylor said. “Every one of us are blessed with so many different opportunities that as long as we decide that we’re going to do it, then we’re going to do it regardless of what we’re told.”

Taylor urges all students to stick up for themselves and follow their dreams no matter how unusual those dreams might be.

“I would love for another student to do something like this,” Taylor said. “If you are passionate about something, there shouldn’t be anything stopping you.”

Taylor hopes to go into the private sector of cyber defense upon graduation and work for a company that will provide her with better benefits and more opportunities to progress her work.

“When you make a degree here, you make a job,” Taylor said. “Now I can be hired doing exactly what I want to do. It makes you so specialized that now people have no choice but to hire you.”