Top 3 sweep: Computer science students propel winning teams at Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge

Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge 2022 computer science participants
Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge computer science competitors: Eric Martin, Blake Davis, Sean Kouma, Tyson O’Leary, Malachy Swonger, Jake Jepson

Computer science students are trained to solve problems in all kinds of domains.

This spring six students in the Department of Computer Science propelled interdisciplinary teams to the top three spots at the CSU Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge.

These computer science students pushed their teams into the lead by drawing on their arsenal of problem-solving skills and dynamically adapting to challenges. While the top three teams faced the same competition tasks, they had different compositions, strengths and journeys to the podium.

Bringing computer science skills to interdisciplinary competition

The Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge is an annual capture-the-flag (CTF) competition focused on issues in the bio-cybersecurity domain, like how to safeguard hospitals, secure vaccines, prevent infrastructure damage, secure online meetings and protect private medical information.

During the two-day event, 36 students from across CSU teamed up to solve a series of group challenges tailored to all skill levels and open to all students, especially from biology, health sciences, computer science and engineering.

Stopping only overnight and for meals, teams tackled over a dozen challenges, testing their skills in SQL injection, FTP, scripting, DNA decoding, packet analysis, falsifying data and reverse engineering. Some challenges were progressive, and Easter eggs were hidden throughout.

Nine teams completed the competition, and cash prizes were awarded to participants who earned the most points.

The event was sponsored by the CSU Vice President for Research, hosted by Mantel Technologies and supported by the Anschutz Family Foundation. Corporate recruiters from HP and Rule4 also attended the event.

First Place: Gravitationally Challenged leverages size and perspectives

Team name: Gravitationally Challenged

Team members: Sean Kouma and Malachy Swonger, seniors, computer science; Wasi Ahmed, junior, Collaborative for Student Achievement; Ben Norby, senior, mechanical engineering; Jaylin Mandley, senior, biomedical sciences; Nick Heyer, Ph.D. student, microbiology, immunology and pathology.

The computer science students on this team heard about the Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge through Hashdump Security Club and organized on the event’s Discord thread. Gravitationally Challenged registered as the largest competition team, with six members from five different departments.

Team member Sean Kouma recognized their advantage.

“Because our team was so large, we could work on a lot of things simultaneously and had a lot of perspectives,” he said. He also felt the team’s surprising cohesion and good dynamic bolstered their success.

Kouma is one of the youngest computer science seniors, at age 20, and joined the first cohort of the new computer science accelerated master’s program this spring. He is also a student systems administrator in the computer science department and competed on CSU’s national top 10 CyberSEED team in 2021.

How did they assign competition tasks on a large, versatile team? Gravitationally Challenged took a relaxed approach, letting members select the tasks they were best at. The two computer science team members used their skills to translate the biology ideas into solutions.

Malachy Swonger took on the falsifying data challenges and joined Kouma on reverse engineering. Swonger is a computer science senior in the software engineering concentration. He’s no stranger to real-world problem solving – he is a student employee in CSU’s Division of IT. This was Swonger’s first CTF competition. “I was surprised at how accessible the competition was and how willing people were to help you out,” he said. “They were very patient.”

Exploiting their range of perspectives, Gravitationally Challenged grabbed first place with 565 points and received a $1298 cash prize.

Second Place: Ultra stays the course

Team name: Ultra

Team members: Jake Jepson, senior, computer science; Olaoluwa Oginni, master’s student, College of Natural Sciences; Enrique Aguilar, second bachelors senior, biology.

Jake Jepson started it all. The computer science senior learned about the Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge from Jeremy Daily, associate professor in the systems engineering department. He organized Gravitationally Challenged, but when it got too big, he formed a second competition team – Ultra.

Jepson is working on a bachelor’s concentration in networks and security, and his undergraduate research focuses on heavy vehicle cybersecurity. He is also a veteran CTF competitor with the Cybertruck Challenge and a half dozen in-person and online hackathons under his belt.

Ultra’s competition approach was simple. The team methodically worked through the tasks one-by-one.

“This is the first competition where my team has completed all the challenges,” Jepson said. “As a computer scientist, I could contribute generic problem-solving skills and look at a program in a way that I would break it. That is a great mindset when you need figure out how hackers get into things.”

Ultra’s experience and deliberate approach moved them to a close second place with 560 points and a $1039 cash prize.

Third Place: Exploiting Enzymes leans on computer science and phones a friend

Team name: Exploiting Enzymes

Team Members: Eric Martin, second bachelors junior, computer science; Tyson O’Leary and Blake Davis, sophomores, computer science; Sage Allen, senior, biochemistry and molecular biology.

Exploiting Enzymes was a computer science powerhouse of three computer science majors, all with previous competition experience, and all taking the popular CS356 System Security course together.

Tyson O’Leary sparked the team to register for the competition after encouragement from CS356 course teacher, Assistant Professor Joe Gersch. Sophomore O’Leary is already accumulating versatile skills. He double majors in the computer science general concentration and math, does undergraduate research in distributed systems with Professor Shrideep Pallickara, has participated in eight competitions, and plays the euphonium in the CSU concert band.

“I thought it would be fun to see how an interdisciplinary event worked,” he said.

At the event, the students selected and worked through challenges in teams of two, flexing around them as needed.

One thing became clear to Blake Davis, “It was surprising to see how much we didn’t know, and it was a huge learning experience,” he said. Davis is building his skills in the computer science computing systems concentration and researching machine learning with Assistant Professor Nate Blanchard.

One bio-cybersecurity challenge stumped the three computer science students – DNA decoding. They phoned a friend for help. Sage Allen, senior in biochemistry and molecular biology, stepped in and saved the day.

“Computer scientists can break a problem into its core components and solve it with computing,” said Eric Martin. “But in an interdisciplinary competition, it is better to have people from other disciplines, with other perspectives, who think differently.” Martin should know – the first-generation student already has a B.S. in chemistry and is concentrating on software engineering for his second bachelor’s degree.

Exploiting Enzymes learned along the way to third place with 500 points and an $854 prize.

Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge: Should you go and how to prepare

All six computer science competitors agree: The number one reason to go to this event is the learning opportunity. The students were able to practice their critical thinking and cybersecurity skills on cross-disciplinary applications and learn how cybersecurity plays out in real-world scenarios.

They also felt it validated what they are learning, gave them perspective, and made them more well-rounded engineers.

Want to try an interdisciplinary competition? The Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge is a good place to start, as it provides professional guidance that boosts the learning experience and makes it more accessible to new competitors.

“The Mantel representatives literally guided you when you hit a roadblock,” Martin said. “It was very important.”

The teams offer the following advice to students interested in this event or other CTFs. Work on coding problems and practice problem solving. Try out your CTF skills and learn some basic concepts on beginner-friendly platforms like Hack the Box. Explore online tools like Nmap, Wireshark, Ghidra, FileZilla and Python. Listen to cybersecurity podcasts. Join Hashdump Security Club. Most importantly, participate in as many competitions as possible.

“It doesn’t matter if you win,” advises Jepson. “Just go learn and have fun.”

The three teams gratefully acknowledge the Bio-Cybersecurity Student Challenge organizers, hosts and sponsors. They appreciate the encouragement and help from Joe Gersch and Hashdump Security Club for exciting them about the competition; Mantel Technologies for giving challenge help without giving away the answers; and Sage Allen for dropping everything to jump in and contribute her biochemist perspective.