My internship at the Department of Homeland Security

Leonardo Babun, electrical and computer engineering doctoral student and intern at the Department of Homeland Security.

Leonardo Babun, electrical and computer engineering doctoral student and intern at the Department of Homeland Security.

Name: Leonardo Babun

Hometown: I was born in Guantanamo, Cuba. I left Cuba in 2007 and moved to Tampa, Florida. In 2008, I relocated to Miami.

What is your major? I am working toward my doctoral degree in electrical and computer engineering under the supervision of Selcuk Uluagac, an assistant professor for FIU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Where did you intern? What did you do there? This summer, I interned for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Arlington, Virginia. There, I had the opportunity to work on cybersecurity and big data analytics projects. Specifically, I used different machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to identify malicious domains on the Internet. Malicious domains are internet websites that have page layouts and web addresses that look similar to real sites. An example is vs. These malicious domains are frequently used to confuse the user to click on fake links to steal sensitive information, compromise their privacy or for malware download.

How did you get your internship? I had the chance to interview for this internship after a very competitive selective process in one of the job fairs offered by FIU’s CyberCorps Scholarship for Service (SFS) program. FIU’s CyberCorps SFS offers students plenty of opportunities to intern with federal government agencies, national research labs, local and state government and more. This year, I interviewed with several different agencies and labs and I received multiple offers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), MIT Lincoln Lab, Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) and General Services Administration (GSA). Finally, I decided to accept the DHS offer.

FIU’s CyberCorps SFS is a prestigious and very competitive program funded by the NSF and co-sponsored by DHS. This program provides a full-tuition scholarship for cybersecurity education, training and professional development. I’ve been an FIU CyberCorps fellow since fall 2017.

What advice do you have for those beginning the internship process? For most students, internships represent the best opportunity to face and learn what real professional life looks and feels like. My advice for those beginning the internship process would be to quickly learn how to act professionally and be part of a professional team. Talent and skills do not represent everything. Indeed, employers use internship opportunities to seek other very important values like a good attitude, honesty, hard work and team work. During an internship, be the first to arrive and the last one to leave, ask questions and try to integrate yourself into the team’s life as soon as you can.

What projects did you work on? For security reasons, I am not able to reveal too many details about the projects I worked on. In general, I worked on cybersecurity projects related to big data analytics using different machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to identify malicious data patterns, which are my expertise and interests. Malicious data patterns refer to data analytics focusing on characterizing data sets based on feature analysis. This approach improves the performance of a user’s analysis tool, which shouldn’t take forever to finish and must also achieve very good results. The challenge when working with malicious data is to successfully recognize certain patterns on these features (different from the same features in benign data) that may help to recognize the presence of malicious datasets. My internship work was very technical, and I had the opportunity to use some of the state-of-the-art tools and techniques to propose novel solutions for real-life and day-to-day cyber threats.

How did your internship connect back to your coursework? This internship experience gave me the opportunity to apply previous professional and academic experience. Everything I learned at DHS will be very useful down the road. Regarding my coursework, it was great to have previous knowledge of different programming languages, software architecture and digital signal processing (DSP). DSP refers to techniques applied to signals to successfully extract valid features in different domains like time, frequency and space. Also, statistics and machine learning played a big role on my internship success because I extensively used statistics and different machine learning algorithms to detect and classify potential malicious Internet domains.

What was the coolest thing about your internship or that happened during your internship? I can mention many! I think the most important thing about my internship is that I could experience real-life threats against our country and how much the government (specifically DHS) does to protect our critical infrastructures and networks. Being able to learn and experience real-life operations and tools was very cool.

What did you like most about your experience? I was treated as another team member from the very first moment. I never felt like the “new guy” or “the intern.” In professional environments, team integration is key for success and I was able to experience that.

 What did you learn about yourself? Eleven years ago I came to this country with only a few dollars in my pocket, no English and zero experience about professional and day-to-day life here in the United States. Today, I am working for the U.S. government in very critical cybersecurity projects. This is the kind of person I want to be and I will work hard to continue pushing the boundaries even further.

How did the position increase your professional confidence? I have more than 12 years of combined professional experience in software, hardware, cybersecurity, machine learning and information technology. However, I believe that every new experience is a great opportunity to learn. Corporate and government work-life experience are very different in many aspects and I did learn that a few things are different in the government arena as opposed to corporate such as government work-life being mission-centered. Instead of focusing on economic or financial metrics, government’s projects aim to protect the critical infrastructure and ensure a safe, secure and resilient America. Also, there’s a lot of diversity, innovation, state-of-the-art technology in government jobs. Now I know that no matter what the environment is, hard work, sacrifice and good attitude pay off eventually.

How did you expand your professional network? During my internship, I participated in several forums, seminars,and meetings that not only helped me to expand my “cyber-knowledge,” but also gave me a great exposure to different government agencies working on similar topics. Most importantly, I met, worked with and learned from very professional and knowledgeable people from my team and other groups.

How did it help you prove yourself in the “real-world?”  Despite my previous “real-world” experience, working for the U.S. government in very impactful projects has represented a big learning opportunity for me. Specifically, I learned how to overcome difficulty, move around the different tasks of the projects, keep deadlines, and most importantly, how to integrate myself and be part of a very diverse team. I’m very thankful to my DHS supervisors and team members, the FIU CyberCorps SFS program, my mentor, Uluagac, and FIU for this rewarding internship opportunity.