WWU Student Kim Huynh Wins National Cybersecurity Award

There isn’t much Western Washington University cybersecurity student Kim Huynh hasn’t managed to accomplish in the last four months.

In January she started Western’s chapter of Women in CyberSecurity (WiCyS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering and bringing together women from academia, research and industry to share in their experiences and help to further play a role in the future of cybersecurity.

In March, Huynh attended the WiCyS Conference 2019 in Pittsburgh where she managed to walk away with the National Student Chapter Leadership Award against 52 other student chapter leaders across the nation.

She accomplished this while carrying a full course load and interning at Premera Blue Cross, a large health insurance provider.

Why take on one more huge commitment? Because above all, Huynh wants everyone to know that cybersecurity is accessible to everyone.

“When you think of a hacker right now, we really think of a hooded male typing vigorously,” she said. “That’s not the case, that’s not how it has to be.”

Cybersecurity refers to the tactics and technology used to equip programs, networks, and data with the security defenses needed to repel attacks and unauthorized access. Cybersecurity threats can be serious, often involving the theft of personal data from users’ accounts and insurance companies. Even smaller instances, such as plugging lost USB drives into computers, can be cybersecurity threat because that USB can be programmed to log your data, Huynh said.

Phishing, the practice of sending emails purporting to be from a reputable company in order to get individuals to reveal private information like passwords and credit card numbers, is the number one method attackers use to compromise data because it’s easy and low-risk, Huynh said. Another to watch out for are advanced persistent threats, stealthy computer attacks where the network is compromised by a person or group who stays in undetected for an extended period of time, she said.

Huynh said she discovered her interest in the field during her time at Whatcom Community College. After receiving her associate’s degree, Huynh transferred to Western, enrolling in the cybersecurity program. In January she elected to start a WiCyS chapter at Western after seeing there wasn’t already one in place.

“We didn’t have opportunities like this to lead workshops and teach different technical things, so I wanted to create a space to empower women and give women opportunities to do that,” she said.

About 20 percent of those in the cybersecurity workforce are women, Huynh said. She’s hoping it will grow to at least 50 percent.

“There’s a high need for cybersecurity professionals right now and there are many different domains in cyber. In order to have comprehensive, diverse solutions we need all hands on deck. That’s what WiCyS is about,” Huynh said.

Huynh spent the last summer working for Premera Blue Cross, getting familiar with the organization’s cybersecurity measures and practicing both defending and attacking its systems. A large part of learning how to be a good defender is understanding how hackers work and thinking like an attacker.

Red and blue teams are used in cybersecurity exercises to represent different roles in a real scenario. The red team’s goal is to approach the blue team’s system as an attacker, trying break in and gather information. The blue team acts as a real-time defense system, finding ways to foil the attacks of the red team.

“I'm really lucky that I work at Premera because they take security seriously, and because of that I get to work with passionate people and play around with really cool tools,” she said.

Huynh took the chapter to WiCyS’s 2019 conference in Pittsburgh where they had the opportunity to work with companies like Bank of America and Splunk, learning how to look inside of their network to try and find traces of advanced persistent threats.

“When I go to these conferences, I meet role models and women from companies like Lockheed Martin and FireEye, and it’s incredible to see the things they get to do,” she said.

In order to have comprehensive, diverse solutions we need all hands on deck. That’s what WiCyS is about.

She was honored at the conference not only for her scholarship, but her leadership in starting the chapter.

“I’m really excited for this award,” Huynh said. “When the board voted and saw what we did at Western’s WiCyS chapter, they told me they wanted to use my template for future clubs. I’m very humbled, and am really thankful for all of the chapter officers (WWU students Gemma Gendreau, Scarlette Anderson, Ngan Le, Romely Morales and Miranda Skar) for working alongside me to help make our club a success.”

WWU cybersecurity program director Erik Fretheim is proud of the work Huynh has accomplished with her time in the program. “Kim is one of those students who amazes you with the breadth of their involvement and the extent of their accomplishments,” he said. “She is a fine example of the many outstanding students we have in the Cybersecurity program.”

Huynh sees the club as an opportunity to spread cybersecurity awareness campus-wide, noting membership is available for anyone who is interested in joining, regardless of their major or gender.

“Sometimes it just takes a little elbow grease to get things started,” she said. “That’s why I’m excited about our chapter. We’ve accomplished so much in six months.”

Huynh also works with different organizations and local elementary schools to teach them about cybersecurity. She has also assisted in designing the curriculum for GenCyber, a National Science Foundation and NSA-sponsored cybersecurity camp.

“Growing up, I didn’t consider computer science, cybersecurity or IT,” Huynh said.

“That’s what I think about when I work with these young girls in middle school. I believe the best predictor of the future is to build it. And that’s what we want to do here at Western.”