Earlier this fall, a group of eight University of Tulsa students tested their mettle in the United States Central region’s Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition (CPTC), held remotely by Tennessee Tech. Scoring a second-place finish, the TUCPTC team was proud to bring silver back to Tulsa.
A week ago, this outstanding crew received even more good news: Based on their high score, they qualified for a “wildcard” spot at the global finals, which will be held at Rochester Institute of Technology from Jan. 7 to 9.
The TUCPTC team comprises students from computer information systems, computer science and cyber security who share an enthusiasm for solving problems. The co-captains are Kate Sharp and Declan Oberzan, both of whom are juniors double-majoring in computer science and cyber security. The team is coached by Codi West (MS ’19), who is currently pursuing a doctorate in computer science, and Associate Professor of Computer Information Systems Sal Aurigemma.
“We are extremely excited for this year’s TUCPTC team to make the global finals,” said Aurigemma. “It is a testament not only to the current group of excellent student competitors, but also to the previous TU teams that set the foundation enabling continued success for those that follow. Our cybersecurity teams succeed because they respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses and want everyone to succeed. This group continues that tradition and the captains deserve a lot of credit for organizing the team and building a culture of mutual respect and accountability.”
Primed for attack
Sharp has been a member of the TUCPTC team since her freshman year, when a previous captain picked her out of a crowd and asked whether she wanted to learn to hack computers. “I quickly fell in love with the field,” enthused Sharp. “Participating in CPTC and having the opportunity to attack a live network and receive feedback is so unique. It’s difficult to emulate this kind of experience in a typical classroom setting.”
For Sharp, aside from the joint thrill of hacking and competition, the major reward of CPTC is teamwork: “We each have our own strengths and work together well when solving difficult problems. The camaraderie is strong on our team this year.” Oberzan’s favorite part of CPTC, meanwhile, is “exploring the network during competition time. The layout is very dynamic and oftentimes allows for more than one way to break into the machines and services.” Oberzan also underscores CPTC’s ability to give competitors real-world business experience (this year’s theme is industrial food manufacturing and sales), “while at the same time allowing us to put our technical abilities to the test.”
Because this is the TUCPTC team’s first time going to the global finals, “we’re kind of in new territory here,” remarked Sharp. To ensure they are all primed for action come early January, said Oberzan, “we’re planning on doing a lot of collaborative and solo practice to keep our brains ready over break.” Added Sharp, “we have a few tricks up our sleeves to get everyone prepared, but we don’t want to share all of our secrets just yet!”
A firm foundation
Both of the team’s captains concur that the education they have received at TU has been an essential ingredient in the team’s success. “While most of the techniques we use during the competition are more specialized than what we learn during class,” Oberzan noted, “TU’s cyber curriculum provides a foundation that we can work with to teach new students how to be effective collegiate pentesters.”
Sharp likewise uses the word “foundation” to describe her coursework, adding “the beauty of this competition is it allows students to research and help each other learn and practice things that are difficult to learn in a traditional classroom setting.” Beyond that, she commented, “I have met and built relationships with many professors that continue to support our team and be a resource for us.”
Sharp, Oberzan and their teammates have much to do to get ready to square off against the world’s best next month. But their coach Codi West has little doubt they will be primed to excel: “This team has put in a ton of hard work to reach the global finals, and they’ll put in even more for next month’s competition. They love cybersecurity and the challenges that come with it, so I know they’ll be ready.”
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