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Cover of Engineering Advantage Magazine, Fall 2018 issue

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Plotting Revenge

Jess MacMillan is creating the story line for this year's California Cyber Innovation Challenge. Jess MacMillan’s workspace at the California Cybersecurity Institute is wallpapered with large pieces of paper with headings that include “Timeline,” “Story progression,” and “Sets needed.”

Since January, the liberal arts and engineering studies senior has been devising a storyline for this year’s California Cyber Innovation Challenge (CCIC), and those hand-written notes map out her fictional crime plot.

“Basically, someone’s medical device is hacked,” MacMillan explains, without divulging too many details. “The students will come in and try to figure out who did it and how they did it.”

Beginning June 21, 30 teams of high school and junior high students from around the state will compete in the CCIC, acting as cyber sleuths, sifting through planted physical and digital evidence. Channeling the classic board game “Clue,” with a high-tech twist, the competition raises awareness about cybersecurity and gets students interested in the field.

“It’s very immersive, and you get to really engage with the storyline,” MacMillan said. “And it’s challenging. Digital forensics in the real world is not easy, the students will experience that. Having that challenge factor.”

The California Cybersecurity Institute, located at Camp San Luis Obispo, is an extension of Cal Poly’s Cybersecurity Center, offering training and research for government, academia, military, law enforcement, first responders and private entities. Every summer, it also puts on the CCIC, which has grown from 20 teams to 30 in the past year.

“The main component of the challenge is to create real-world experiences for our future cyber defenders,” said Danielle Borrelli, the CCI’s business services coordinator. “Providing them with skillsets and experiences that inspires them toward a career in cybersecurity is our upmost goal. It's in the best interest of our state and our nation.”

MacMillan, from Morgan Hill, is not only creating the story for the challenge, but she is also designing the sets, which include living spaces and hospital rooms. And she’s directing a video trailer for the challenge.

After students learn of the challenge, they will spend two hours sifting through the rooms for evidence, then another four hours analyzing evidence, using computer skills.

This year’s fictional crime features a character named Justin Walker, whose medical device gets attacked.

“I did find a lot of documentation where this has happened, which was kind of alarming to me,” MacMillan said.

Jess MacMillan

Borrelli said this year’s challenge is one of the best yet.

“The challenge she has created is quite complex, and touches on topics that others might be too afraid to even approach,” Borrelli said. “It's bold, it's tasteful, it's strong, and it's perfect. Perfect for what we need it to be, which is to get the minds of youth engaged in the limitless possibilities in cybersecurity with the mission of enhancing and growing the cyber professional workforce.”

MacMillan’s broad education has helped her with a task that is both creative and technical. Her concentrations entail sustainable engineering and global studies, and she’s minoring in photography and religious studies.

She also brings worldy experience to the challenge. Because her father worked in marketing for global tech companies, she has lived in places like England, Switzerland, China, Africa and Australia.

“I grew up traveling all over, and seeing a broader perspective of the world impacted me,” said MacMillan, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in business analytics from Cal Poly after graduation.

While attending a Christian high school, she traveled to Thailand as her missions club president. That eventually led to an internship with an organization that owns a startup coffee and gift shop called Braverly.

Braverly empowers women from oppressed groups on the Burma/Thailand border and provides them with work skills, including business management, sewing, culinary arts and product development.

MacMillan continues to volunteer with the shop, designing products and communicating with stateside boutiques to sell them.

“The biggest thing is we want to give women hope and the realization that they can have the skills to work a good job,” said MacMillan, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in business analytics at Cal Poly. “They can help provide for their families in that way.”

One of MacMillan’s goals is to help less developed communities in sustainable ways.

“I wanted to be able to give back with all the things I’ve been given because I did nothing to deserve them,” she said. “So I wanted to be able to pay it forward to other people.”


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