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Switch in college focus pays off for cybersecurity contest winner

Anne Arundel student excels in Homeland Security-sponsored camp

By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

9:12 PM EDT, August 1, 2013

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Rafael Mation came to the United States four years ago from Brazil with a degree in accounting and an interest in pursuing a career in English.

But somewhere along the way, the 27-year-old Anne Arundel Community College student and Roland Park resident determined he was hard-wired for something else and, buoyed by a long-standing fascination with computers, opted instead to pursue a career in information technology.

It proved a wise decision. Though he came to the United States with scant knowledge of computer technology, he recently earned one of 50 spots at a U.S. Cyber Camp in Roanoke, Va., sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and was part of the winning team in the camp's Capture the Flag competition, featured on "CBS This Morning."

Mation was selected for the camp from among 1,200 applicants after successfully completing an online challenge — an accomplishment that was the culmination of his career at Anne Arundel Community College. He's now poised to graduate with an associate's degree in information assurance and cybersecurity and hopes to enroll at a four-year school to pursue the field.

"I have always liked computers. I have a passion for computers, and I just wanted to understand how people could hack into a computer," said Mation. "I started trying to learn how I could protect a computer system from being hacked. I saw it was a growing field. A lot of people need people to protect their computers."

The U.S. Cyber Camp summer program involves one week of cybersecurity training from college faculty and cybersecurity experts on topics ranging from forensics to intrusion detection.

Mation earned a $1,000 scholarship for being a member of the winning Capture the Flag team. That contest involved students defending their computers against hackers in situations that mirror real-life circumstances.

"I felt pretty excited about winning at the camp. It was teamwork, but I feel the skills I learned at the college ... helped me win the competition," he said.

Mation hopes to land a job as an information technology specialist and has applied those skills as a volunteer in the information technology division at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

"I was more or less fixing computers and helping to solve issues with email or any other computer issue," he said.

Carrie Leary, an associate professor in the computer technologies department at Anne Arundel Community College, said she met Mation last year at the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab.

"He shared that he was a student at AACC, that he was interested in getting more involved in our information assurance program at the college and that the following year he planned on being at CCDC — only this time not as a spectator, but as a competitor," Leary said. "I was interested to see if he would fulfill that promise to be back there the following year."

One year later, not only did Mation help lead a team from Anne Arundel to qualify for this year's Mid-Atlantic regional finals, but he also was a member of the winning team at the cyber challenge camp.

"I admire all that he has accomplished," Leary said.

Much of what was discussed at the camp, Mation said, was similar to the problems he has seen through course work at Anne Arundel Community College. The classes, he said, also touch on the philosophical issues surrounding technology and cybersecurity.

"In the college, they tell us that what we learn we can use for good or for evil," Mason said. "It's up to us. We need to be very conscious about what we do and what we are learning."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com