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Meet Zia Muhammad, a Ph.D. Cyber Security student at North Dakota State University (NSDU.) Zia sat down with Cybernews Academy to discuss his educational journey and the extensive benefits of studying at NSDU. He started his academic journey in his home country of Pakistan, studying Computer Software Engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology, Taxila. Zia studied a master’s in Information Security at the National University of Sciences and Technology. Finally, he landed a spot at NSDU and is in the final year of his Ph.D.

Deciding on his degree

Before committing to a Ph.D. in Cyber Security, Zia assessed his needs, researched, and found a fantastic cybersecurity program at NSDU. One of the most essential factors that spurred his decision was identifying a research professor whose focus aligned with his research interests. Secondly, was finding a welcoming and accommodating atmosphere to continue his academic journey. So, he landed in Fargo at NSDU, where Zia found it relatively easy to assimilate into this new environment. "I didn't experience a cultural shock as the Fargo community is so welcoming; you feel like you belong here." Alongside this friendly environment, other unique factors appealed to this soon-to-be doctor of cyber security. "There are sports clubs like Karate. There are cyber security research events and cyber security workshops. It's so much fun." He mentioned some of the facilities at NSDU and how supportive the university is. "There is a research and advising center where they guide you every step of the way. There's also a center for graduate writers who need help writing research papers." Before deciding where to study his Ph.D., Zia considered his interests and research goals. Doing your research is vital to finding the best university for you. Whether you're concerned about the campus community or research opportunities, it's best to assess your options and see which university fits your needs.

Growing interest

Throughout his interview with Cybernews Academy, Zia spoke about his academic progression and interest in cyber security, “When I did my bachelor’s in software engineering, I was more interested in how things can be exploited and how the software works.” He often asked himself, “What happens if you play with the software? What happens if you think outside of the box.” Zia was interested in breaking the systems, and that’s how his interest in cyber security developed. “My focus was to learn how things work. What are the problems with it? What are the issues in it? And how can we solve these problems to make them more secure?” This interest bloomed after completing his bachelor’s studies, and from there, he began to explore his cyber security niche.

Research

Zia’s research focuses on the cyber security challenges arising from generative artificial intelligence (AI.) This issue is particularly pertinent in the age of AI chatbots like ChatGPT, Google Bard, and other generative AI platforms, as, in some cases, this software can be used to generate malware and help facilitate phishing attacks. As a part of his degree, Zia looks at the philosophy behind these attacks and posits, “Who would be punished? Would it be the attacker, the company that created the chatbot, or the government who hasn’t regulated the software?” Alongside his interest in cyber security, Zia has always been interested in computers and finding loopholes in their systems. Once he discovered his niche, he sought practical experience off campus.

Practical experience

Zia developed and honed his interests by gaining practical experience outside of academia. Previously, Zia worked in a Cyber Security Auditing and Evaluation Lab, a research institution funded by the government of Pakistan. This institution develops security solutions that comply with the country's needs. "I was working for two and a half years, and then I switched my career to teaching, and I taught in the cyber security department at Air University in Islamabad for one year." Zia also managed to gain experience during his time at NSDU at the Challey Institute. He works as a student fellow who researches and writes pieces on different news channels and media platforms. The university advertised this opportunity, and he submitted an application and successfully became a student fellow. "It's a big community, and to be part of positive change is important." Zia gained a lot of diverse experience through his work experience. He observed cyber security from all perspectives by teaching, working, and gaining industry experience.

Self-learning

Industry experience is one way of obtaining knowledge about your chosen field. However, Zia learned that self-learning is one of the best avenues to hone your craft. Before beginning his studies, Zia wished he’d known about online learning resources. “Before I started my cyber security journey, I wasn’t aware that information is freely available to you everywhere. You need to spend time researching.” He recalls a course he took via a free website that offers free programs and classes on a payment plan. Zia completed a course on cyber security and post-quantum cryptography. This gave him more profound insights into quantum computing and how these technologies will evolve. Zia enjoys this facet of academic life, learning independently and researching different computer science and cyber security topics. Yet some of the most valuable lessons Zia learned in the classroom.

Triumphs

We at Cybernews Academy asked Zia what he liked most about his degree. He referenced a specific course and how that impacted his academic journey. “There was a course called Survey of Cyber Security. I enjoyed that course because it was research-oriented and a bit different from other classes.” Zia explained that his professor gave the class particular research papers they would have to discuss with their classmates every week. “We would have a variety of choices, and the other people would post online what we found and how this can be improved, and similarly, I have to engage with this discussion.” Zia expressed that this structure helped diversify the learning process and helped him think critically about his area of research.

Challenges

However, his Ph.D. studies presented some challenges. He told us that finding research papers in the thousands was challenging but rewarding. Zia has to specify keywords and dive deep into his topic to extract valuable information. Alongside his meticulous research, this future doctor of cyber security discussed the ever-growing challenges within cyber security. He explained that cyber security is like a “Tom and Jerry race”: hackers gain new tricks, and cyber security professionals adapt, finding new ways to handle these issues. “What’s happening in the cyber security industry is that attackers and cyber criminals are becoming more advanced and diverse. They are designing malware and cyber attacks that are sophisticated and persistent. These attacks remain undetected for an extended period if installed in your system. But on the other hand, security researchers and other organizations are finding new ways to prevent these attacks. It’s a continuous battle.” However challenging these may seem, Zia expressed that these challenges make the subject appealing. “Cyber security is a fun challenge filled with ever-growing excitement,”-- which is one of the things that makes the future of Zia’s field so exciting.

Future

Zia plans to complete his final year of Ph.D. studies and gain his doctorate. He wants to stay in the cyber security industry and bring positive change by securing critical infrastructures and making the online world safer. Zia wants to be associated with the industry and academia by finding a job opportunity that aligns with his goals. He hopes to join a research institution or university where he can teach and contribute to innovations in research. "I would love to be part of the Industry-Academia British program in which you have a remarkable collaboration with the industry and academia to provide the industry with the latest cyber security challenges." He hopes to bridge the gap between academia and industry to help produce a new generation of cyber security professionals.

Zia left our interview with some words of encouragement for our Cybernews Academy readers. “Never give up, never underestimate your talent, spend time cultivating your craft and recognize what you’re best at, then put all your energy into being the best you possibly can be.”