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Adjunct instructor Sandy Dunn: Empowering future cybersecurity professionals at Boise State University

Sandy Dunn
Photo provided by Sandy Dunn

In the fast-paced and ever-evolving world of cybersecurity, the role of educators becomes paramount in shaping the next generation of skilled professionals. At Boise State University, adjunct instructor Sandy Dunn is a remarkable faculty member in the cyber operations and resilience undergraduate program. With her unwavering dedication, extensive expertise and passion for cybersecurity, Dunn plays a pivotal role in preparing students to tackle the complex challenges of the digital age.

A Multifaceted Career

With a diverse professional background, Dunn brings a wealth of experience to her role at Boise State University. Her journey began during the early 2000s amidst the rapid expansion of the internet and the proliferation of computers. Working at Micron PC in sales, she discovered the value of being well-versed in technology, enabling her to focus on meeting customer needs rather than just price points. “I could explain how much RAM someone might need for setting up a web server. And the value of what we had to offer,” she said. This experience sparked her interest in technology.

Her career path led her to Hewlett-Packard (HP), where Dunn took on a role in competitive intelligence with multifunction printers. It was during this time that she recognized the vulnerability of internet of things (IoT) devices and the need for robust security measures. She shared her surprise, “No one was talking about security, but here were these original IoT printing devices that were vulnerable! People were hacking them, but no one was doing anything about it.” Her curiosity and determination drove her to explore the field further, learning from the limited resources available at the time. “I got completely enamored with security. There were only two security podcasts at the time: CyberSpeak from Mandiant and one from I would listen every week and take notes. I was on their channel and asking all kinds of questions. I kept digging in and learning everything I could.”

With a thirst for knowledge, Dunn took every opportunity to expand her expertise. She took on many roles at HP, including ACT engineer, security engineer, information security officer, then a product security strategist. Her diverse roles exposed her to complex challenges, such as splitting root certificates during HP’s breakup. Eventually, she craved a new challenge and took her technical expertise to Blue Cross of Idaho, where she moved from IT security architect to chief information security officer (CISO). She is now the CISO of a startup, Shadowcape, where she is assisting in building their portfolio.

Education and Expertise

Complementing her professional experience, Dunn pursued advanced education to augment her knowledge in cybersecurity. She earned a master’s in information security management from the prestigious SANS Technology Institute. Furthermore, her extensive list of certifications, including CISSP, SANS GSEC, GWAPT, GCPM, GCCC, GCIH, GLEG, GSNA, GSLC, GCPM, Security +, ISTQB and FAIR, reflects her dedication to continuous learning and staying at the forefront of the industry.

Solving a Need

Sandy Dunn found it challenging to fill security roles she was hiring for, “I saw a disconnect between what was being taught and actual security practitioners. I wanted to bridge the gap between what you see in a book and what you experience at work.” She expressed her frustration at recent graduates being unable to think through complex problems or communicate effectively.

When presented with the opportunity by Dr. Sin Ming Loo, cyber operations and resilience director, to impart her knowledge and shape the future of cybersecurity professionals, she eagerly embraced it. Reflecting on her course creation experience, she humorously remarks, “It was a bit like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. There may have been some road rash, but it was exhilarating.” Dunn’s lighthearted approach highlights her adventurous spirit and willingness to take risks in order to provide an engaging and enriching educational experience for her students.

Dunn acknowledges the prevalent misperception surrounding cybersecurity and strives to rectify it. As Dunn puts it, “There is a huge disconnect between what people think cybersecurity is and what it actually is. So many people don’t realize what a valuable asset they could be for information security. You don’t necessarily need hacking skills. People who are good at project management, communication, blue team, development and understanding the big picture – these are the skills we need the most. I wanted to come in and connect people who could be amazing in cybersecurity who have the right skills and don’t realize they have the right skills – that they can do this.” In line with this belief, she endeavors to bridge the gap between misconceptions and reality, empowering individuals to recognize their potential in the cybersecurity field.

“I saw a disconnect between what was being taught and actual security practitioners. I wanted to bridge the gap between what you see in a book and what you experience at work.”

Bridging Theory and Practice

Dunn firmly believes in bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world application. Her courses in the Cyber Operations and Resilience program include CPS 301: Information Assurance and Critical Thinking, CORE 405: Cyber Project Management and Design and CORE 480: Finishing Foundations/Capstone. Each course emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, effective communication and problem-solving skills. “I want to give students a GPS that I didn’t have,” she explains, highlighting her commitment to equipping students with the tools necessary to navigate the complex cybersecurity landscape.

The biggest challenge Dunn observes her students facing is the realization that information security is not as black and white as they might initially expect. As she puts it, “The thing that is difficult in my class is that there is no one right answer. In every class I teach, I emphasize that there are many correct answers. Go search the internet and see what you can find.” She learns much from what her students bring to discussion posts and weekly assignments as they rise to the challenge.

To ensure her students receive the most relevant and up-to-date knowledge, Dunn remains devoted to staying informed about current cybersecurity events and trends. “I am always slurping up all kinds of information. I listen to podcasts and read news feeds, and I stay curious. I never stop researching,” she said. This commitment to ongoing education allows her to provide her students with the latest insights into the ever-changing cybersecurity landscape. When pressed for what happens during her office hours, Dunn smiles wide, “My favorite office hours are when I have a student working in an IT field and brings me a new problem. It’s neat because we can all think about it and apply the course knowledge to solve a real-world problem.” She also uses office hours to answer general course questions or discuss career possibilities.

“The thing that is difficult in my class is that there is no one right answer. In every class I teach, I emphasize that there are many correct answers. Go search the internet and see what you can find.”

Nurturing Growth and Transformation

The pinnacle of Dunn’s teaching experience is witnessing her students’ growth throughout the program. “Seeing students thriving and at the end during the capstone course… I feed off of it. I get a renewed jolt of enthusiasm working with students.”

The capstone projects, in particular, allow students to showcase their ability to apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios. With immense pride, Dunn states, “I can see the difference they are going to make for the companies they are hired onto.” The capstone projects serve as evidence of the value students bring to organizations and exemplify their potential to contribute significantly to the field of cybersecurity.

Sandy Dunn’s impact on the Cyber Operations and Resilience undergraduate program at Boise State University is undeniable. Her relentless passion, extensive expertise, and commitment to education make her an invaluable asset to the program and its students.

Learn More about the Cyber Operations and Resilience Program

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By Marissa Wilson