The research aspirations of University of Central Florida engineering student Heather Lawrence, who wants to discover ways to teach computers to analyze and fend off cyber attacks to reduce the burden on human defenders, will advance with some help from a scholarship awarded to only seven student veterans in the nation.

The Student Veterans of America and Raytheon awarded $10,000 to veterans pursuing STEM degrees who demonstrate leadership in the community.

Lawrence, 29, is a U.S. Navy veteran pursuing a doctoral degree in computer engineering. She also works as a threat intelligence analyst at Fortress Information Security.

She is president of the UCF Collegiate Cyber Defense Club, the popular 280-member student organization also known as Hack@UCF. The club focuses on information sharing to improve skills and knowledge in the constantly changing field. Members often outreach to the community and talk to media to offer advice on how to keep personal data safe.

The scholarship adds to her already-impressive resume that includes a national championship title.

Lawrence served six years in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear engineering technician, including four years stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). After returning to civilian life, she attended Valencia College then transferred to UCF where she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in 2015. She plans to earn a master’s degree in computer engineering this fall while working towards her doctoral degree.

She competed on the 2016 national champion UCF Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition Team and was on the 2014 national champion team as an alternate. UCF has won three back-to-back titles in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, sponsored in part by Raytheon.

Lawrence’s family moved to Orlando when she was young. She credits her mother’s lack of computer knowledge for her early knack with computers.

“One of the best things my mom ever did for me was get me a computer when I was 12,” she said. “It was a computer built from pieces of other computers. She didn’t know how to use it so I had to figure out how it worked.”

With nearly two years of military training in nuclear engineering technology and then working on an aircraft carrier on dry dock and at sea, Lawrence said her Navy experience was an important stepping stone that prepared her for continued success in college.

“Veterans should definitely consider pursuing higher education. You can choose your own path in college. I started with nuclear engineering training and now I’m a cyber security expert. Employers love the combination of military experience and a college degree.”

At UCF, Lawrence found camaraderie in Hack@UCF, where standing-room-only meetings in an auditorium involve discussing various aspects of cyber security and defense tactics. She said it was the supportive nature of club members that led her to the world of cyber security.

“My first Hack@UCF meeting was daunting,” she said, noting the club’s typical discussion topics such as “crypto,” “reversing,” “binary exploitation,” “reconnaissance” and more. “It’s the people in the club that made me want to come back. Everyone is there to learn.”

As club president, Lawrence is positioned to inspire others to pursue the field. To be successful, she said, the main quality people need is relentless curiosity. “The field is dynamic, so you are in a constant state of learning. You have to have a desire to learn.”

Lawrence intends to stay in the field as a researcher and entrepreneur. Her UCF doctoral work will focus on ways to apply machine learning to prevent computer intrusions by looking for things that human analysts don’t see.

“I want to create technology that stems from my research, get it patented and launch a business with it.”