Cybersecurity Enthusiasts Gather for St. John’s Coding Competition

Luca Iandoli, Ph.D. at the podium
February 8, 2024

Continuing its mission to promote cybersecurity literacy, St. John’s University hosted its second annual “Capture the Flag” coding competition on January 24 in St. Augustine Hall on the University’s Queens, NY, campus. The competition was designed to help students enhance their data security skills and their ability to prevent security breaches. Cybersecurity education is essential given the increasing number of cyber threats faced in the digital world.

More than 25 students from four New York City high schools honed their programming skills in a series of cybersecurity exercises to test their knowledge of data protection and internet privacy. The Sanford family, for whom the University’s Sanford Family Cyber Security Lab is named, sponsored the competition. The family’s mission is to empower students through technology and to strengthen the Cyber Security Systems community on campus.

Linda S. Sanford ’74Ed, ’98HON, St. John’s Board of Trustees Emerita, is considered a pioneer in the technology industry. She is the former Senior Vice President, Enterprise Transformation for IBM and was one of its highest-ranking women executives and one of the most senior executives in all of the company’s technology sector when she retired from IBM in 2014.

Ms. Sanford is a member of the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering, and has been named one of the 50 Most Influential Women in Business by Fortune.

Unlike the two-day hackathon the University hosted in collaboration with TechTogether New York in Spring 2023, this event was designed specifically for high school students. The students participated in a coding version of the popular game “Capture the Flag” (CTF), in which two competing teams race to find the hidden flag of the opposing team while simultaneously trying to protect their own. 

In the digital version of the game, available through the Hack The Box platform, teams had to find hidden text strings (the “flags”) in various cybersecurity, IT, networking, and digital forensics coding tasks. “It’s like a big scavenger hunt,” explained Suzanna Schmeelk, D.P.S., Ed.D., Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity, Division of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Science, and Director, Master of Science in Cyber and Information Security program.

These types of CTF exercises are foundational for professional cybersecurity training and help students enhance their strategic-thinking skills, and learn how to better secure data and ways to prevent security breaches. 

“It’s a way for us to make technology closer to students,” said Luca Iandoli, Ph.D., Dean, The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies, and Professor, Division of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Science. “We strongly believe that there is a big gap, a new digital divide when it comes to digital technology. I think St. John’s should work in that direction to close the gap and help people from underrepresented groups and less privileged social groups access a successful career in this thriving industry.”

Joan E. DeBello, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Mathematics and Computer Science, and Chair, Division of Computer Science, Mathematics and Science, and Dr. Schmeelk designed some of the tasks to show students important themes in the computer science field. “The questions are similar to the different majors that our College offers,” Dr. DeBello said.

Current University students, many of whom are part of St. John’s Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Student Chapter, acted as rotating mentors to the teams. One mentor, Sebastian Torres, a sophomore from Queens, NY, majoring in Computer Science, said he was impressed with the efficiency of the students. 

“Some of them know more things than I know,” he said.

Jacqueline Grogan, Ed.D., M.B.A., Associate Provost for Enrollment Partnerships and Engagement at St. John’s, was delighted to see the effort demonstrated by all participants. “The atmosphere of intensity in the room is just really unique,” she said.

Lea Chen, 17, a student at Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood, NY, participated for the first time in a CTF competition. With help from their mentors, Lea and her teammates quickly familiarized themselves with the format. “Everyone was super helpful and patient,” she said.

The winners were Team TKA, consisting of Antonia Dey, Muhammad Rafikov, and Koushik Sarkar, who captured six out of 10 possible flags and received a St. John’s-provided gift bag. Muhammad, who attends Brooklyn Technical High School in Brooklyn, NY, said that while he has always been interested in programming, he only recently found a passion for cybersecurity when one of his teachers introduced the topic in the classroom. 

“I don’t get many opportunities to go out and just have fun like this,” Muhammad said. “It was a great event. I would love to do it again.”

Current St. John’s students who are interested in enhancing their coding skills can look forward to another larger coding competition planned for later this semester. Dean Iandoli encouraged students to participate. “Hackathons are fantastic places where people can gain tons of knowledge in a hands-on, fun way,” he said.