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A different code

Cracking passwords and opening back doors with Dr. X and the Wofford hackers.

The students call her Dr. X—an appropriately mysterious nickname for Dr. Polyxeni Mountrouidou, Wofford's own cybersecurity expert, hacker, assistant professor of computer science and mentor to women interested in the field.

“I’m happy and honored to be here,” says Mountrouidou, who brings with her a three-year, $295,998 National Science Foundation (NSF) education and research grant to engage undergraduates in cybersecurity learning. “Wofford offers faculty the perfect balance between teaching and scholarship. They feed each other, and research is even more fun with undergraduate students.”

As part of the grant, Mountrouidou is working with Dr. Xiangyang Li of Johns Hopkins University to develop learning modules that can be embedded into the general education curriculum.

“What better place than a liberal arts college to help develop students who are aware of the importance of cybersecurity?” says Mountrouidou. “We need people in every discipline who are aware of the gravity and consequences of a network attack. These classes will create more knowledgeable citizens who will understand both the quantitative and qualitative importance of cybersecurity, and hopefully this will create a pathway to careers in the rapidly growing field of cybersecurity.”

According to Mountrouidou, the learning modules can be embedded into technology, public policy, economics, ethics, sociology and psychology classes.

“The collaboration across disciplines that I've seen at Wofford will make this successful,” Mountrouidou says. “The first modules will be ready next fall, and I've already found a number of student researchers who will intern with me as part of the grant to develop the modules.”

Provost Dennis Wiseman is excited about the possibilities. 

“Dr. Mountrouidou brings with her not just a profound knowledge of cybersecurity, but also energy and enthusiasm for teaching undergraduates,” says Wiseman. “I look forward to seeing how this will enhance the academic experience at Wofford.”

A native of Athens, Greece, Mountrouidou came to Wofford from Jacksonville University in Florida. She met Dr. Angela Shiflet, retired Larry Hearn McCalla Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, at a conference for computer science education. 

“When Angela retired, she called me,” says Mountrouidou. “She knew I loved teaching, networking with other computer scientists and conducting research with students. Wofford was a perfect fit, and I applied immediately.”

Since coming to Wofford, Mountrouidou has started weekly meetings for students interested in learning more about cybersecurity, how to defend and how to attack. The group of fledgling hackers calls themselves “Revenge of the Terriers,” and they competed in the college’s first hackathon this semester. 

“I’m amazed at the Wofford students,” says Mountrouidou. “They come after 5 o’clock and spend hours learning the basics of cybersecurity.”

According to Mountrouidou, preparing for and participating in hacking competitions helps students learn how to analyze and solve problems. They must be able to think like hackers, plan defense strategies, write code and, most importantly, make good, principled decisions.

“The first things we talk about are the ethical issues,” says Mountrouidou. “We want to win the hackathon, but we will follow the rules of the contest—no copying flags (awarded after successful completion of a challenge) and no stealing flags from other competitors.”

Mountrouidou says that it’s critical that students learn that cybertheft is a crime and that there are severe consequences for the offense. Students who can defend against cybersecurity threats will be able to write their ticket upon graduation.

In addition to her work with the hackers, Mountrouidou picked up Shiflet’s work mentoring women in computer science, and she has big plans for the women attending her monthly lunches. 

“I’ve already given our women in computer science information about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing,” says Mountrouidou. “It’s a conference that fosters the success of women in the field.”

The students must prepare an essay, request recommendations and complete an application. It’s a stretch, but Mountrouidou would love to take a group of 10 Wofford women to the next conference. 

“This is something that women can be so successful at,” she says. “Mentoring women interested in the field is so dear to me. The profession is unbalanced. Only about 10 percent of the computer scientists in the field are women. That can be discouraging. I want women to see that they belong here.”

Mountrouidou says that the next lunch will focus on successes and failures. She’s shared the story of her successful NSF cybersecurity application, and she plans to tell students about the embarrassment she felt at getting a C in her first computer science class. 

Yukun Peng ’16, a computer science major from Beijing, China, is already inspired. She’s currently applying to graduate school in game design and says that being a Wofford hacker and involved in the women in computer science lunches has already been beneficial.

“Having a background in network security is one of things that gaming graduate schools look at,” says Peng. “And it’s fun!”

Mountrouidou couldn’t be happier. 

“I always loved breaking things to see how they worked, solving puzzles and being a detective,” says Mountrouidou, who got into programming in high school because she wanted to be a hacker. “Now I’m teaching students about cryptography and network security, how to find back doors and crack passwords. This is important work, and the students who excel will be recruited by the NSA, DOD and tech companies around the world.”

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89