May 07, 2021
The U.S. is facing a severe shortage of cybersecurity professionals, leaving government and businesses vulnerable to online attacks. A Mizzou Engineer is on a mission to fill those vacancies. Meet Prasad Calyam, who has made it his purpose to train a new generation of cyber warriors who can defend our digital data.
Calyam is an associate professor and Robert H. Buescher Faculty Fellow in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department. He is director of the Mizzou CERI Center for Cyber Education, Research and Infrastructure and co-director of the Cybersecurity Center. He’s a sought-after expert often invited to share his insights on cybersecurity and cloud-based platforms with companies across the country. His research has been sponsored by many federal agencies including National Science Foundation (NSF), US Department of Energy (DOE), National Security Agency (NSA), US Department of State (DOS) and Army Research Lab (ARL).
But first and foremost, Calyam is an educator. Earlier this semester, he was awarded the Mizzou Engineering Senior Excellence in Teaching Award — a fitting tribute for a faculty member who makes students a priority. From his PhD advisees to his son’s elementary classmates, Calyam is committed to getting others excited about cyber work.
“I center all things around students,” he said. “I write every grant with the student in mind, every paper with the student and their success in mind. Every opportunity I bring to the lab, I center it around how it can benefit students in terms of getting them to work on important problems that spur innovative solutions.”
And Calyam has brought plenty of opportunities to his lab, the college and MU campus.
‘A great place for multidisciplinary research’
Since opening in early 2020, the Mizzou CERI Center has become a hub for virtual partnerships, advanced cyberinfrastructure, research and outreach.
There, Calyam works with collaborators across the globe on studies around emerging issues such as edge computing, blockchain technologies, chatbot-aided computation and cyber strategies. Last year, he received funding from the National Security Agency to establish the Mizzou Cyber Range, which includes learning modules that can be used to train students across the country.
The CERI Center also welcomes faculty across campus seeking advice on computing, networks and security issues.
“The CERI Center is a fantastic resource for the Mizzou community,” Calyam said. “We have this culture of collaboration at Mizzou, which is really unique. And my research and development interests in areas of cloud computing, networking and cybersecurity is a common need in many scientific fields—bioinformatics, agriculture, business, special education. I am fortunate to have had many people knock on my door and want to work with me. The CERI Center formalizes that engagement and allows me and the other cyber faculty affiliated with the CERI Center to build strong partnerships and scale up our multi-disciplinary research efforts.”
One such project is a CAVE opening in the CERI Center this summer. The CAVE is a visualization facility that provides users with immersive virtual environments. EECS Associate Professor Ye Duan, along with co-principal investigators including Calyam, secured a grant from the National Science Foundation for the facility.
Already, researchers from engineering and other colleges are working on projects for the CAVE. It’s expected to provide simulation exercises for first responders; virtual exploration of protein structures and biological systems; and a way for civil engineers to safely study traffic flow and building structures.
“The grant we received for the CAVE is a good example of bringing people together around cyberinfrastructure to provide new opportunities for multi-disciplinary project efforts,” Calyam said. “We find faculty with common interests and bring in other units across the campus to invest in one vision. That provides collective impact with new learning opportunities for students and new prominence in the region for Mizzou.”
Calyam has helped bring prominence to Mizzou Engineering on a national and international stage, too. He engages industry experts and identifies strategic academic partnerships.
At the Mizzou Cybersecurity Center, he and Director Rohit Chadha formed an Industrial Advisory Board to help guide the research and education there. They were able to recruit an all-star group of cybersecurity experts from organizations such as IBM, Cerner, the Defense Information and Systems Agency and the National Security Agency.
Calyam is also involved with international research happening under the umbrella of Partnership 2020: Leveraging US-India Cooperation in Higher Education to Harness Economic Opportunities and Innovation, which is supported by the US State Department.
And he led efforts to formalize a partnership between Mizzou Engineering and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetha, a top-ranked university in India. The partnership kicked off with a virtual symposium and is expected to foster collaborative research and exchange experiences.
For Calyam, it all comes back to students.
“It’s a cycle,” he said. “If you do not message your science outside of your academic papers, it’s hard to get funding or attract students to further research efforts. You have to find ways in which your research goes outside of the lab and beyond the papers to produce the impact it should and create new opportunities.”
‘Learning by doing’
In the classroom, Calyam mixes and matches lectures and interactive exercises. In virtual settings, he uses break-out rooms to get students to work together to solve problems. Groups are given a challenge, then asked to present their findings to the entire class.
“Some groups just blow my mind with their answers, and other students see that,” he said. “I like to engage students and make them learn from each other.”
Because computing technologies advance so quickly, Calyam reviews and updates his curriculum often to reflect the latest practices. He also integrates his research into his classes to make sure students can see real-world applications of what they’re learning.
“I spend a lot of time creating hands-on lab exercises that complement lectures in class,” he said. “I really believe in learning by doing.” Earlier this year, VMware recognized these efforts by providing funding for Calyam and his team to develop open-source hands-on lab exercises on latest topics in cloud computing such as microservices, containerized workloads, and monitoring/management of apps across multiple clouds
Calyam knows first-hand the impact that type of instruction has on students. When he was in high school in India, his father signed him up for an electrical engineering summer camp. Calyam had no idea what to expect; he just knew his dad believed it was worth the one-hour drive to get there.
The camp gave participants the opportunity to work with experts on various projects. Calyam, a musician, opted to make a circuit board piano.
Amongst the wires, chips and resisters, he found his purpose.
“My camp experience really gave me confidence that this was something I could understand and could do. It got me really excited about it,” he said. “I truly believe that if you expose kids early, they will find their purpose. We are all born with some purpose, something we’re really good at. And finding that is so critical.”
That’s why he goes above and beyond to help Mizzou Engineering students. He actively identifies students interested in cyber topics and recruits them to work with him on various research and development team projects. He has advised over 60 graduate students and 40 undergraduate students, the majority of whom have co-authored journal articles and peer-reviewed conference papers with him.
Calyam helps students beyond the campus, too. He is director of the NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which brings high-achieving students from across Missouri and the country to Mizzou Engineering. For 10 weeks during the summer, these undergraduates work on real-world research problems and submit papers on their findings. The REU aims to get younger students interested in research and graduate school, and some past participants have said it proved to be life-changing.
Calyam also leads a three-day summer camp for high school students. Hacker Tracker introduces teens to cybersecurity, teaching them foundational computer skills along the way.
“Cybersecurity gives a full picture of the field,” he said. “To defend something, you have to know what it is your defending, how it works and how it can be brought down. Cybersecurity provides a good overview of the field while getting kids excited.”
Blessed to be at Mizzou
Calyam earned his PhD at The Ohio State University, where he also worked at the Ohio Supercomputer Center in systems engineer and research engineer/director roles.
There, his job was to demonstrate a new statewide fiber optic network and help build and monitor cloud-based environments for various data-intensive applications in biology, chemistry and material science.
Calyam’s skills and abilities stood out. He was awarded his two sole-PI grants as principal investigator from two different federal agencies within about a year of earning his PhD—a rare feat in academia.
“I enjoyed all the research opportunities at the Ohio Supercomputer Center, but what brought me to Mizzou was my love for teaching,” he said. “I wanted teaching to be part of what I do every day. I strongly felt that MU was a great match for me. There are so many wonderful people here to pursue multi-disciplinary research, jointly create course curriculum and build advanced cyberinfrastructure platforms. I feel so blessed looking back. I really love Mizzou.”