Southeast Cybersecurity Student Learning to Protect Nation’s Power Grid

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Southeast Missouri State University student Connor McGarr is learning to protect our nation’s power grid as an information technology (IT) intern with Ameren, a Fortune 500 utility company.

McGarr, a senior cybersecurity major of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, works with Ameren’s Cybersecurity Co-op in St. Louis, Missouri. Assigned to the Cybersecurity Architecture team, he gets to help implement cybersecurity architecture guidelines that showcase security and address potential risks in the workspace while recommending security controls.

McGarr has been an Ameren intern since February. During the spring semester, he took mostly online courses but commuted between Cape Girardeau and St. Louis for one class. He will return full-time to campus in August.

With cybercrime a continuous and ominous threat, McGarr is also a part of a threat hunting team that addresses vulnerabilities and performs and suggests remedies. He’s learning and applying information security tactics for Ameren’s power grid which supplies utilities to millions of customers. He also participates in a firewall review team.

“Ameren’s power grid is located in the middle of the country,” he said. “The intricacies of our nation’s power grid actually need Ameren’s power grid to function in order to achieve the continuity of power we all take for granted. It is an important task to keep the grid secure, and this is what inspired me to become a part of the cohort that carries out this mission on a digital level.

“I’m learning all of the industry standards and best practices in production to promote secure practices in a dynamic, digital environment,” he added.

Meeting industry standards and secure production practices in an ever-changing digital environment creates a fast-paced and busy workplace for McGarr at Ameren.

The team’s also involved in security consulting, engineering, work with gas and electric plant control systems, and nuclear, distribution, transmission and advanced metering infrastructure.

From shadowing Ameren’s cybersecurity architects and attending meetings to probing the environment for active digital threats, there is always something to do.

His teammates are a diverse group and have unique backgrounds and various strengths in information security, allowing McGarr to expand his own knowledge.

“We are able to spread knowledge while being relaxed and having fun,” he said. “The team I’m involved with is awesome.”

One of the biggest highlights while at Ameren’s Cybersecurity Co-op for McGarr has been a day when the team went off-site to conduct labs to test malicious exploits or attacks to assess their behavior and outcomes on the power grid.

“It is brilliant to see some of the exploits you see in the news carried out in front of you,” McGarr said. “We would never get to do this in the corporate setting.”

McGarr hopes to gain real-world experience from his time at Ameren as well as build relationships with those working beside him.

“I’m learning what I want and do not want for my future career in information security, and I hope to build a foundation for a successful career going forward,” McGarr said.

McGarr credits much of his success at Ameren to the cybersecurity courses he’s taken at Southeast, preparing him for this real-life industry opportunity.

“Southeast has given me all of the tools to be successful, he said. “I have worked hard to get where I’m at, but I would not be in the position I’m at without the foundation Southeast set for habits and best practices in this field.”