IS&T Faculty, Students Develop Next-Generation Workforce ‘Network’ – University of Nebraska Omaha

Quantum computing.

It’s a concept that, much like its cousin quantum cryptography, is poised to revolutionize dozens if not hundreds of fields ranging from cancer research to securing our communications infrastructure.

With nations like China already making advancements in quantum technologies, a lack of a quantum-ready workforce stands as one of the biggest national security challenges currently facing the United States.

This is why UNO researchers like Abhishek Parakh, Ph.D., associate professor of cybersecurity, and Mahadevan Subramaniam, Ph.D., a professor of computer science, have spent the last five years leading the nation on tackling this challenge by training hundreds of students in the College of Information Science & Technology to take on this next-generation challenge.

It’s an effort that has been making many experts stand up and take notice, placing Omaha at the center of the next stage in cybersecurity.

Why Quantum Computing?

So, what exactly is quantum computing? Or, more importantly, what does it do?

“Quantum computing turns the entire way of how we think about algorithms and processes upside down,” Parahk says. “It uses counter-intuitive physics concepts to achieve higher efficiencies and better results.”

While the specifics can be hard to understand, it’s impact is more clear: As the reliance on digital infrastructure only continues to expand, the race becomes how to make the most out of technologies that currently exist while looking ahead to the technologies that might exist in the future.

“The applications for quantum computing are continually growing,” Parakh adds. “Drug discoveries, supply chain optimization, weather forecasting, discovery of new scientific elements, cryptography, and so on. With the laying of miles of quantum networks in cities like Chicago, a quantum network connecting the Nebraska campuses could be on the horizon.”

There’s just one problem: revolutionary concepts mean a lack of ready access to the materials needed to train the next generation. That’s where Parakh and his students come in, working on research projects that have earned them top awards each of the last two years at the Colloquium on Information Systems Security Education (CISSE), the oldest and most distinguished conference on cybersecurity education.

Bridging an Invisible Gap

Well before many saw the potential of quantum computing, Parakh wanted to find a way to make learning about it more accessible to the next generation. In 2016, he secured a National Science Foundation grant to try and do just that.

The first step was QUASIM, a video game where students need to apply quantum computing concepts to progress further in the gaming environment. This, in turn, makes the act of solving problems more purposeful and therefore more likely to be retained.

“The game helps you visualize otherwise challenging concepts,” says Vidya Bommanapally, a doctoral student in cybersecurity who helped Parakh develop QUASIM as a master’s student, coming to UNO for computer science from Hyderabad. “Even for me, it’s a challenge to digest these concepts, so it was interesting to see how, when you are solving problem visually, you are really solving it in multiple ways.”

The second idea, funded by a grant from the National Security Agency (NSA), helped Parakh supply students with Jupyter Notebook access – an open-source software platform for intensive computing needs.

The innovative nature of the Jupyter software allows course modules to be responsive, emphasizing self-paced student learning. In other words, if a student understood one concept well, they would receive less tasks in that area compared to concepts they may be struggling in.

Joseph Burr, a graduate student in cybersecurity from Holdredge, Neb., who also works locally as a software developer took Parakh’s class in the summer of 2021. He has since decided to do his master’s thesis on the development of a secure quantum Internet. Burr says access to the course material developed using the Jupyter software has been critical for his success.

“Anyone can memorize a formula, but if you don’t understand the concepts, it’s an issue,” he says. “The notebooks added another way for students to understand the material. I’m a visual learner and being able to adjust values visually where I can see how data flows and where certain things happen in the computing process – it presented a better way for me to learn than a dry textbook.”

Quantum Learning for Quantum Computing

It was only a matter of time before others took notice of what was happening at UNO.

Following several years of trials, feedback, and collected data, Parakh and his students converted their lessons learned into academic publications. In 2020 these efforts earned the “Best Paper” award and also earned the “Innovation Award” in 2021 at CISSE.

Bommanapally, who helped develop QUASIM as a master’s student before returning to complete her Ph.D. at UNO following a stint working for a software company in California, says that the adaptive learning used in these platforms is likely to become the rule, rather than the exception, in the future.

“Even though digital tools, especially after COVID, make information more accessible, it can be more difficult to replace the one-on-one, personal interactions you have with others that help facilitate learning and make students successful.”

Accessing an Exceptional Future Through UNO

Since Parakh began his efforts to expand quantum computing access, he has offered his adaptive learning course, in various stages, to nearly 300 students. Burr, who also works full time as a software engineer in Omaha, and Bommanapally, who wants to help improve how machines can learn and process information, are just two of these students who already have a leg up on their peers in the computer science field.

“Every class I’ve taken so far I immediately turn around and use it at work,” Burr says. “A lot of the work we did in class was matching what we were doing to what large companies were doing now; so, a lot of jobs will be created this field in the coming years. If students are wanting job in cybersecurity, getting involved with something like this early on is very helpful because a lot of companies are looking at quantum computing right now”

Parakh’s ultimate goal? Develop programs that can build off each other to help develop customizable lesson plans for each student to meet their needs and help them not just memorize concepts, but truly learn them.

As of right now, UNO is one of the only – if not the only – university in the country looking to apply these concepts to cutting edge computer science technologies. However, Parakh knows others will soon be trying to catch up, so he and his team continue to look for ways to stay one more step ahead.

“Eventually quantum computing will just be ‘computing’ and then it will be up to our students to get ahead of what comes next.”

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