Nurturing Swiss cyber defence talent
The Swiss government has declared cyber security a national security concern, and in 2019 established the Cyber-Defence Campus (CYD) to more quickly anticipate cyber developments and train the next-generation of cyber defence experts.
Cyber defence talent is crucial
Cyber-security is a sexy topic. Many people are interested in it, Hollywood makes blockbuster movies about it but in reality, there aren’t many who want to start a career in it, meaning there’s a real need in Switzerland to promote and support the field in general.
Based in Thun, Zürich and EPFL, the Cyber-Defence Campus (CYD), is taking on this challenge, utilizing the digital and innovation ecosystem in the region, which includes EPFL Labs, the Center for Digital Trust (C4DT) and Trust Valley to attract the best and brightest of the next-generation of computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and entrepreneurs.
The root cause of this isn’t fully obvious but we know that cyber-defence requires a special skill-set that isn’t very common. To work in this field, you need more than technical cyber skills, it’s also about creativity and being a very curious person.
“It not only takes the basic skills developed at university but also what people learn and like in their free time - hacking or playing games such as capture the flag. Not many people have this combination" he adds.
Staying ahead of the cyber-defence curve
Launched jointly by EPFL and the Cyber Defence Campus, the “CYD Fellowships – A Talent Program for Cyber-Defence Research” promotes research and education in cyber-defence at Masters, Doctoral and Distinguished Postdoctoral levels to foster new solutions to major challenges in the fields of security and data science.
The program brings together basic and applied research in cyber-defence and the number of applications has increased substantially since we started the program in 2020. It’s a competitive scheme and we can now be highly selective, with generally around a 10-20% acceptance rate
“This means that it’s possible for us to choose the best people and topics that we think are relevant to Switzerland and can have a potentially strong positive impact for the country. In addition, we want to have a program that nurtures talent, gives them the opportunity to work in cyber-defence and increase the attractiveness of the field,” he continued.
To date, 12 Master Thesis, 6 Doctoral and 5 Distinguished Postdoctoral fellowships have been awarded. The EPFL Research Office coordinates the day-to-day implementation of the programme on behalf of the CYD Campus, including the application and selection processes.
The Master Thesis fellowships are on a rolling-call basis so Master students may apply any time, while there are two calls per year for Doctoral and Distinguished Postdoctoral fellowships. In addition, a recently launched proof of concept Fellowship program is now offered via an open rolling call to promote innovation and specifically targets future entrepreneurs.
The Fellowships are open to candidates of any nationality hosted by a higher education institution, or a startup based in Switzerland although the research is conducted at the CYD Campus located either at EPFL, or at the CYD offices in Thun and Zurich.
“Through the program we have very good access to students and young researchers. Basically, we look at the profile of the applicant and the project proposals and we go from there,” explains Lenders.
As an example, a few years ago we had a post doc fellow from EPFL who was working on GANs or generative adversarial networks, that were the precursor to today’s large language models like ChatGPT that everybody’s talking about. We were ahead of the curve with this project back then and it’s now a really hot topic that we are still pursuing based on the knowledge that we developed with the fellow
Apart from financial support, CYD fellows are also assigned a CYD Mentor and have access to key stakeholders and networks within the Swiss cyber-defence research ecosystem. In several cases, the collaboration between the researcher and the CYD Campus has continued after the fellowship. The CYD fellowship has so far proved a springboard for the career of several fellows who have secured demanding positions in both academia and industry afterwards.
Building a cyber-defence community
As cyber-threats accelerate due to the exponential growth of network connectivity, the opportunities for security hackers to wreak significant damage for commercial, political, or other gains are on the rise.
Strategically, this makes it even more important for Switzerland to grow a cyber-defence community. Through this program the Cyber-Defence Campus is nurturing long-term community relationships to create a cohort of people that want to continue working together, or interacting, after their research is complete.
The 9th call for Doctoral and Distinguished Postdoctoral fellowships will open on December 1st 2023 with a deadline of 23 February 2024 (17:00 CET) for Doctoral and Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship applications. The 10th call is expected to be launched at the end of May 2024.
Open rolling calls are available for the Master Thesis and Proof of Concept Fellowships. Both new applications and resubmissions are strongly encouraged.
For more information, please visit: https://www.epfl.ch/research/funding/epfl-programmes/cyd/
Learn more about the fellows and their projects: https://www.epfl.ch/research/funding/epfl-programmes/cyd/fellows/