My internship in cybersecurity

Aditya Sundararajan at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.

Aditya Sundararajan at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.

Name: Aditya Sundararajan

Hometown: Hyderabad, Telangana, India

What is your major? Electrical and computer engineering

Where did you intern? I interned at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)’s South Table Mountain Campus in Golden, Colorado.

What did you do there? I worked as an electrical and computing engineer in the Security & Resilience (S&R) Group at NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF). The group provides utility companies across the country with site assessments to evaluate existing security controls, identify gaps and offer prioritized action items to improve cybersecurity for the distribution domain of the smart grid. The smart grid is a nation’s key critical infrastructure which integrates the traditional electric grid with information and communication technologies to ensure the availability of power to homes, businesses and emergency units at an enhanced efficiency without jeopardizing the security and privacy.

I worked on a couple of Distributed Energy Resource (DER) related projects that explored their cybersecurity requirements and solutions. Additionally, I was given the opportunity to assist in a partnership project with the Colorado School of Mines and cybersecurity standards development for DERs.

How did you get your internship? My advisor, Arif Sarwat, associate professor for FIU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been instrumental in giving me the exposure to industry and national lab professionals right from the beginning of my doctoral program. I’ve had the opportunity to meet several NREL professionals during FIU-hosted events and the 2015 IEEE Smart Grid Communications Conference where I volunteered, as well as during conferences where I presented my papers. The interactions continued beyond such events, one of which was in the form of a joint conference publication in 2017 that received the Best Paper Award. Such positive collaborations encouraged me to apply to NREL for their summer internship program.

What advice do you have for those beginning the internship process? Networking is a very important first step toward securing an internship besides having a good command over your area of research. Attending conferences, guest lectures, webinars and workshops are great ways to expand one’s network. Establishing durable contacts is also important which can be done through collaborative projects or publications. The national labs of the Department of Energy (DOE) have a great appreciation for research and researchers who’ve published their work.

Confidence is key. You must be ready to not only own what you know well, but also admit what you do not know. Demonstrate the eagerness to learn from and the willingness to contribute to a team no matter where you go.

What projects did you work on? Due to confidentiality reasons, I am not allowed to disclose project-specific information, but overall I contributed to the ongoing DER security initiatives by exploring and analyzing their protocol-level vulnerabilities to potential cyber-attacks, methods to mitigate them and conducting validation with the testbed.

How did your internship connect back to your coursework? My dissertation is geared toward the domain of grid-tied photovoltaic systems. The photovoltaic systems refers to solar power plants and grid-tied refers to how such systems can be disconnected and connected to the main power grid. While defining my scope of work, NREL ensured it complemented my areas of research and dissertation objectives to enable a successful utilization of the time. The internship broadened my understanding of smart grid cybersecurity, networking, data analytics and visualization.

What did you like most about your experience? The work environment and culture at NREL was very positive. The people on my team with whom I interacted with daily came from different cultures and professional backgrounds. The discussions I had with them were profound and helped me stay abreast with the latest developments in the field. The campus is in the middle of a nature preserve and is full of scenic locations. The views of the mountain ranges surrounding the campus offered great motivation to go to work every morning. The campus is also eco-friendly, and I’d see rabbits and squirrels around the campus which I think sends a great message about coexistence.

What did you learn about yourself? This opportunity gave me the confidence to pursue my future research in the area that marries smart grid, data science and cybersecurity. NREL’s cybersecurity group is a fast-growing research center that has strong ties with other national labs like Sandia and Pacific Northwest National Labs, industries including utilities and vendors across the globe and academic institutions including FIU. Seeing an increasing interest in this cross-disciplinary area has been encouraging. It has given me the assurance that I am headed in the right direction.

How did the position increase your professional confidence? The internship was one of my first experiences outside of FIU, where I carried the reputation of my lab and represented the university. Knowing that was intimidating but it also built in me the confidence of how to present myself and carry a technical discussion during large group meetings where brevity was key. The nature of the feedback and appreciation I received have made me value the work I do at FIU’s Energy, Power & Sustainability (EPS) Group even more, deepening my passion to pursue research in my current area even after my graduation in the future.

How did you expand your professional network? At NREL, I was involved in a few collaborative projects besides technical research. These projects enabled me to interact with people from different academic and industry backgrounds. While most of my research has been in solar energy, a visit to NREL’s National Wind Technology Center (NWTC), where I met with researchers and partners in the wind farm sector, broadened my understanding of DERs.