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Students in Action: Chibuzo Ukegbu, Computing PhD Cybersecurity emphasis

Join us in celebrating Chibuzo Ukegbu, Computing PhD student in the Cybersecurity emphasis. After Chibuzo’s paper, Cooperative verification of PLC programs using CoVeriTeam, was published at the 2023 ACM/IEEE Conference on Internet of Things Design and Implementation in San Antonio, TX, we asked him to share more about his research focus, motivation and academic successes.

Computing PhD: Why did you choose to study at Boise State?
Ukegbu: My decision to study at Boise State University was primarily driven by the university’s commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive student body and the vibrant and scenic environment of Boise, Idaho. The abundance of green spaces, moderate climate, and overall city attractiveness further solidified my choice.

Computing PhD: You had a paper published recently. Tell us more about that work.
Ukegbu: The paper is about using a new technique called cooperative verification to verify the safety and security of industrial control systems (ICS). ICS controls things like power grids, water treatment plants, and manufacturing assembly lines. In the past, these systems have been targeted by malicious actors, and ensuring they are safe and secure is essential. Cooperative verification is a new technique that can be used to verify the safety and security of ICS more effectively than traditional methods.

Computing PhD: What motivated you to conduct this research?
Ukegbu: My motivation stems from a deep concern for the safety and security of public critical infrastructure, which has increasingly become a target for malicious actors worldwide. Any disruption or exploitation of crucial infrastructure systems like power grids, water treatment plants, and others could have catastrophic consequences, making physical, technical, and strategic measures crucial for their protection. Addressing these challenges motivates me in my research endeavors.

Computing PhD: How will your publication positively impact the field of Computing and/or your area of emphasis?
My publication aims to address ICS safety and security challenges by introducing innovative verification techniques and promoting their adoption within the field. The potential impact of my work lies in its ability to enhance the reliability and resilience of critical infrastructure systems, safeguard essential services, and protect public safety.

Computing PhD: Which part of the research was most interesting to you?
Ukegbu: The research’s most exciting aspect was exploring cooperative verification techniques for Industrial Control Systems (ICS). This area of research is relatively new and has the potential to improve the safety and security of critical infrastructure systems significantly. I was particularly interested in developing a prototype for PLC logic testing using the CoVeriTeam platform. This prototype demonstrates the feasibility of using cooperative verification to verify ICS programs. It highlights the potential benefits of this technique.

Computing PhD: Which part of the research was most challenging?
Ukegbu: The most challenging aspect of the research was overcoming the limitations of individual verification tools. When used independently, these tools can sometimes produce false positives or fail to detect vulnerabilities. The challenge was to combine the strengths of different tools to overcome these limitations. This required careful consideration of the different verification algorithms and developing a framework that could effectively coordinate the tools and share information between them.

Computing PhD: How did it feel to learn your research was published?
Ukegbu: Learning that my research was published was a moment of immense pride and satisfaction. It signified the hard work, dedication, and countless hours spent on the project finally came to fruition. It was an affirmation that my efforts had contributed to the computing field, particularly in Industrial Control Systems (ICS) safety and security. The publication also allowed me to share my findings with a broader audience of researchers and practitioners, potentially influencing future research and applications in ICS verification. Overall, the publication of my research was a significant milestone in my academic journey and a testament to the power of research to address real-world challenges.

Computing PhD: Who was influential or helpful to you throughout your research process?
Ukegbu: My research advisor. My advisor, Dr. Hoda Mehrpouyan, provided invaluable guidance and mentorship throughout the entire research process. Her expertise in Industrial Control Systems (ICS) was essential in shaping my research direction and refining my methodology. She also encouraged me to think critically and creatively, helping me to overcome challenges and develop innovative solutions. The reviewers of my publication: The reviewers of my research paper provided valuable feedback that helped me improve my work’s clarity, rigor, and overall quality. Their insightful comments and suggestions were essential in refining my manuscript and ensuring its contribution to the field of computing.

Computing PhD: What was the most enjoyable, fulfilling or memorable part of this experience for you?
Ukegbu: The Eureka Moment: Nothing was more exhilarating than having a breakthrough in the research process. When a piece of the puzzle fell into place and I suddenly understood how to solve a problem, it was an incredible feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. These moments of intellectual discovery kept me motivated and inspired me to continue my research. Sharing My Findings with Others: One of the most rewarding aspects of the research experience was sharing my findings. Presenting my work at conferences and workshops allowed me to engage with a broader community of researchers and practitioners and receive feedback. These interactions helped refine my ideas and deepen my understanding of the field. Making a Real-World Impact: The most fulfilling aspect of the research experience was the potential to make a real-world impact on the safety and security of critical infrastructure systems. Knowing that my work could contribute to protecting essential services such as power grids, water treatment plants, and manufacturing operations was incredibly motivating. It gave me a sense of purpose and reminded me of the importance of my research. Personal Growth: The research experience allowed me to develop valuable skills and gain a deeper understanding of computing. I learned to conduct rigorous research, analyze complex problems, and effectively communicate my ideas. I also had the opportunity to collaborate with brilliant minds worldwide, which expanded my knowledge and perspectives.

Computing PhD: How has this experience helped to prepare you for your career goals and plans?
Developed Strong Research Skills:
The research process has honed my ability to conduct rigorous research, formulate hypotheses, design experiments, collect and analyze data, and draw meaningful conclusions. These skills are crucial for success in academia and industry as a researcher.
Enhanced Problem-Solving and Analytical Abilities: My research challenges have strengthened my problem-solving and analytical skills. I learned to identify the root causes of problems, devise creative solutions, and critically evaluate potential outcomes. These skills are essential for tackling complex technical problems in computing.
Improved Communication and Presentation Skills: The need to present my research findings to both academic and industry audiences has enhanced my communication and presentation skills. I learned to effectively convey complex technical concepts clearly, concisely, and engagingly. These skills are essential for communicating research findings to colleagues, clients, and the public.
Deepened Understanding of Industrial Control Systems: My research focused on improving the safety and security of Industrial Control Systems (ICS). This has given me a profound understanding of ICS architecture, design principles, and security vulnerabilities. This knowledge will be invaluable in my future endeavors in the ICS domain.
Developed Research Ethics and Integrity: Conducting responsible and ethical research has been a central aspect of my experience. I learned to adhere to ethical guidelines, respect intellectual property, and avoid plagiarism. These principles are essential for maintaining research integrity and upholding academic standards.

Computing PhD: What research or projects are your currently working on?
Ukegbu: After publishing my first three papers on cooperative verification of PLC programs and boundary verification of PLC programs and developing benchmarks for cooperative verification of safety and security properties of PLC programs, I am currently working on developing frameworks for boundary verification of safety and security properties of complex industrial processes. These frameworks use ontologies and signal temporal logic to detect violations in these processes while understanding their structure and real-time implications to the verification requirements of such complex industrial processes. This work uses Eastman’s Tennessee plant model as an example. We want to use ontology to understand the relationships of the various constraints while using STL to verify the boundary properties of this plant in real time. Expected Impact: This work is expected to significantly impact the safety and security of complex industrial processes, such as nuclear power plants and grids. By developing frameworks for boundary verification, we can help prevent subtle safety and security violations that could have catastrophic consequences. For example, our frameworks could detect sensor data anomalies that could indicate a potential security breach. Additionally, our frameworks could be used to verify that control systems are operating within safe boundaries, even in the face of unexpected disturbances. By improving the safety and security of complex industrial processes, we can help protect critical infrastructure and ensure public safety.