Cyber Mentors Ignite Learning Experiences for MITRE Interns

September 2018
Danielle Zelin and Aimee DiPietro
Aimee DiPietro and Danielle Zelin working on laptops

Most people shy away from lightning, with good reason. It's dangerous and unpredictable. But sometimes "lightning" leads to "light bulb"—as in a moment of clarity that helps shape your future.

For Danielle Zelin, her moment was sparked by a "lightning talk" during a MITRE summer internship at our Bedford, Massachusetts, campus. These events typically tap five or six MITRE cybersecurity experts to give short talks about their different areas of focus, exposing interns to as broad a range of potential career paths as possible.

"That lightning talk went hand in hand with other advice I was getting, which was to expand my network," says Zelin, who was then a computer science major at Tufts University. "If I was interested in something new, I was told to reach out and ask about it.

"That's just what I did. After the talk, I introduced myself to one of the presenters. A few months later when a spot opened on his project, he reached out to me, and I was able to work on it."

Aimee DiPietro's Aha! moment occurred during her internship as well. While working in Bedford the summer between her sophomore and junior years of college, she learned the age-old-but-sometimes-resisted advice: Never be afraid to ask for help. "Specifically, don't be afraid to ask your task leader to sit with you and point out the places in your code writing that could be improved," she says.

Clearly the advice paid off. Now, as full-time cybersecurity engineers at MITRE—and new co-coordinators for the Bedford cyber intern event program—Zelin and DiPietro made sure the 2018 summer interns benefited from the same opportunities they received just a few years ago. They're helping to make the world a safer place, both in their work and by mentoring the next generation of cybersecurity experts.

Planning Meaningful Events for Summer Interns

The two planned a full slate of events including skills labs, mentoring lunches, intern bonding, panel discussions—and, of course—lightning talks. The events began in July, and each drew between 30 and 85 attendees. DiPietro and Zelin began working on the events program in the spring under the tutelage of leader Gabrielle Raymond and assumed full responsibility for the program in August.

Zelin is particularly proud of one of the skills lab events. It offered hands-on work to interns interested in learning about Cryptographic Protocol Shapes Analyzer (CPSA), a software tool for designing security protocols. By the end of two hour-long sessions, 20 interns modeled basic cryptographic protocols and analyzed the output to make sure their models were correct.

For the last month of the internship program, they held several informal lunches to address any lingering questions and connect the interns to more MITRE professionals. The final panel discussion featured staffers giving tips on entering the workforce.

DiPietro and Zelin spent several hours planning each event on top of their full-time cybersecurity positions. DiPietro, who joined MITRE full time in June 2017, works on network security and software development problems for government sponsors. Likewise, Zelin, who came aboard in August that year, does similar work. She's also working with a couple of interns on CPSA, where she focuses on reviewing the design documentation about the tool to be sure it's clear and intuitive enough to promote wider use.

Passing Along Wisdom from Early-Career Professionals

Both directly mentor interns as well. DiPietro worked with Jonathan Kim, now a freshman at Rochester Institute of Technology. "I gave him the same advice I received,” she says. “I told him to reach out to the people whose work he finds interesting. And I told him not to be afraid to ask his task leader to do code reviews."

Zelin mentored John Tagliaferro, now a junior at her alma mater, Tufts University. "Because I know the Tufts curriculum, I can help him select the right coursework to align with his interests. Working with him is like seeing myself two years ago and I really want him to benefit from what I learned."

Who says lightning never strikes twice?

—by Twig Mowatt

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