Local high schooler and FIU intern publishes research paper on cybersecurity

Anurag Akkiraju, a recent high school graduate, interning at FIU's Cyber-Physical Systems Security Lab.

Anurag Akkiraju at his Cyber-Physical Systems Security Lab internship.

Remember attending high school and being excited to go to the homecoming football game or prom with your best friends? Anurag Akkiraju — a recent high school graduate and intern in FIU’s Cyber-Physical Systems Security Lab —was excited for all this, but was mainly excited because at 17, and while still in high school, Akkiraju had his first paper published.

In October 2017, his paper titled “Cybergrenade: Automated Exploitation of Local Network Machines via Single Board Computers” was published on IEEE Xplore, a digital library and research database filled with journal articles, conference proceedings, ebooks, and educational courses — all related to computer science, electrical engineering and STEM fields. It was featured at the 2017  Networking and Systems Research Workshop held in Orlando, Florida, part of the 14th IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) International Conference on Mobile Ad-hoc Sensor Systems.

In 6th grade, the Miami native learned the fundamentals and language of computer programming. Seeing that Akkiraju had a strong interest in mathematics and science, Akkiraju’s father signed him up to take online courses at the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science, where he acquired the basics of computer programming.

As his interest in computer science continued to increase, Akkiraju chose the pre-engineering track at American Heritage High School in Plantation, Florida. American Heritage was ranked the No. 1 high school in Florida with 134 nationally recognized scholars in 2015 and ranked 12th out of 22,000 high schools in the nation, according to Newsweek.

Akkiraju was the lead programmer in the electrical and programming club. In 9th grade, he also joined the Robotics Club, where he says he learned a lot.

“I’d spend every afternoon after school in the engineering lab with my friends building stuff,” says Akkiraju. “We built a 120-pound robot in six weeks that performed simple game tasks assigned to the robots as part of the FIRST Power Up 2018 Robotics Competition.” The FIRST Robotics Competition is an international competition where high school students build game-playing robots. Akkiraju and his teammates competed in the 2018 challenge, taking home first place in regionals.

During that time, Akkiraju’s father had returned to school at FIU for his master’s degree in computer science. Akkiraju expressed to his dad an interest in finding an internship and doing research; his dad reached out to one of his professors, Selcuk Uluagac, assistant professor for FIU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, to see if there were any opportunities within the Cyber-Physical Systems Security Lab. Uluagac is the director of the lab.

Uluagac loved the idea. Akkiraju began interning at FIU in the summer of 2017, between his junior year and senior year of high school.

In the lab, Akkiraju designed a framework to properly test networks in an effort to prevent attacks on network machines. Akkiraju used a Single-Board Computer (SBC) called a Raspberry Pi, which is a small hand-held computer, to imitate a real cyberattack. The SBC automatically collects all the details from a local network and assesses all known vulnerabilities associated with it. It took him five weeks to code and complete the framework. It then took him another week to write the paper, with help from Uluagac; Burak Yesilyurt, a graduate student who was Akkiraju’s mentor; and David Gabay, who was an undergraduate student also interning at Uluagac’s lab in the same summer.

“I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get a paper published at such a young age had it not been for this internship,” Akkiraju says. “I also enjoyed the Tuesday and Thursday status meetings with the entire team from Uluagac’s lab. I learned what undergraduate and graduate students were working on, and it was a nice bonding experience.”

Selcuk Uluagac, assistant professor for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, with Anurag Akkiraju.

Selcuk Uluagac, assistant professor for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, with Anurag Akkiraju.

Akkiraju also interned at FIU’s Cyber-Physical Systems Security Lab in the summer of 2018. He continued working on cybersecurity projects and helped Uluagac in developing Internet of Things (IoT) labs and projects for future undergraduate students.

“This was a great experience for both me and Akkiraju,” says Uluagac. “This was new for me as he was the first high school student to work in my lab. I provided him with all the tools and he proved himself. I look forward to having more high school students from American Heritage and other local high schools to help in shaping future engineers and scientists. And, I am so honored and proud to have such a positive impact in these young minds and so happy to catalyze their growth and success in their lives.”

Akkiraju will be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science.