ECU student wins Palo Alto’s national cybersecurity competition

When East Carolina University senior Harrison Thaxton decided to enter the Palo Alto Networks national cybersecurity competition, he received some advice from last year’s winner — 2020 ECU graduate Alex Hardt.

“He told me that he knew I was already going to make it to the finals but that I needed to win for ECU,” Thaxton said.

Well, that’s exactly what he did.

Thaxton became the second Department of Technology Systems student to win the competition in as many years, earning a $10,000 top prize. Another ECU student, Ian Gunn, was among the 10 finalists in the event.

As part of the competition, participants submitted a series of reports and papers on various topics of cybersecurity. The last assignment was a five-minute video presentation, after which Thaxton and Gunn learned they were among the top 10 finalists.

The final challenge was a virtual presentation in front of 10 judges. Thaxton said he practiced in front of his parents.

Harrison Thaxton

“I sat my parents down and told them, ‘I know you’re not interested in this, but you’re going to hear my whole presentation and give me pointers because I’m nervous,’” he said.

As he sat outside his grandmother’s closet to get the best internet connection, he learned he had won.

“We were all on the call, and they announced the third-place person, and I thought that his presentation was really good, and then they called the second person, and I thought he was going to win, so I was thinking I probably placed sixth or seventh and there was no way I was going to win,” he said. “Then they announced, ‘first place from East Carolina University’ and I did not expect it. I was very shocked.”

Thaxton said the money he won will go toward graduate school at ECU as he seeks a master’s in network technology. Beyond the prize money, he said the competition taught him an important lesson about reaching out for help from experts, which in his case was Dr. Chase Cunningham, the chief strategy officer at Ericom Software.

“I reached out to him, and later that night, he responded,” Thaxton said. “I interviewed him, and it wasn’t until later that I realized that he had roughly 30 years in IT and health care security, and he had written numerous books and is a very well-respected published researcher.”

Thaxton, who grew up in the small Lenoir County town of La Grange, credits Dr. Ciprian Popoviciu for encouraging him to participate in the competition as well as the rest of the faculty and staff in the College of Engineering and Technology.

“They have provided me the education that led to all of this and the opportunity to do things like this,” he said. “La Grange is a very rural community, and there was nothing like this when I was growing up. When I was in high school, the most they offered was a couple of electronics classes, and it wasn’t until I got to ECU that I really got to start learning what I liked and what interested me, and it’s been a great opportunity ever since.”

Gunn said he had a number of reasons to participate in the competition.

Ian Gunn was one of 10 national finalists for the Palo Alto Networks cybersecurity competition.

“I wanted to learn more about information security, improve my research ability and understand future threats,” Gunn said. “I will be attending ECU’s graduate school with a major in network technologies. I am considering a career in information security and felt this competition would provide me with an opportunity to learn more about network security.”

Gunn said he focused his work during the competition on health care.

“The health care industry has been attacked, and in some cases millions of patients had their information stolen,” Gunn said. “The health care industry, however, can utilize different technologies to increase their defenses. Some of these technologies include using artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

Though he didn’t win, Gunn said he learned a lot about intelligence resources that can help security administrators stay up to date on the latest cybersecurity threats, and he enjoyed networking with industry professionals at Palo Alto Networks. He relished the chance to participate in the competition and was happy to be among the top 10 finalists in the nation.

“I am very proud because I had an opportunity to represent ECU and compete against top students from around the United States,” Gunn said

Palo Alto Networks is a global cybersecurity company with headquarters in Santa Clara, California.

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