Transfer reflects on military duty, passion for BVU computer science

Thursday, December 31, 2020
BVU senior Kelsey McConnaughy

Four Buena Vista University computer science majors earned first place in a computer hacking contest recently hosted by Taylor University of Upland, Ind. For one of the team members, Kelsey McConnaughy, the title represents a wonderful way to cap her BVU undergraduate career.

“Winning the competition was a fun experience,” says McConnaughy, a December 2020 graduate who begins her career as an application developer I at Professional Computer Solutions (PCS) in Denison on Jan. 4.

The contest requires teams to find vulnerabilities (bugs) in application code that can lead to the theft of confidential data (flags in the simulation) residing on the servers. Teams must fix those vulnerabilities to prevent the theft of their flags. If a team hasn’t fixed code and, thus, protected its flag, other teams may capture their flag.

BVU’s team represented a variety of grade levels among undergraduates, ranging from McConnaughy, a second-semester senior, to Brieann Haberl, a first-semester freshman from Alta. Senior Tyler Freese, of Council Bluffs, and junior Greg Tystahl, of Iowa Falls, completed the winning quartet, which was advised by Dr. Nathan Backman, Associate Professor of Computer Science and winner of the 2019 Wythe Award for teaching excellence at BVU.

“Greg is really good at seeing vulnerabilities and we used Discord and had a chat window with a shared screen to allow Brieann, who is a freshman, to get comfortable with looking at code,” McConnaughy says. “Tyler found two vulnerabilities with 30 minutes left in the contest and we captured a Taylor team flag with three minutes left.”

“Our BVU team pushed hard until the very end,” says Backman. “And in the final moments of the final round (out of five rounds), they managed to find an extra vulnerability in an application that other teams hadn’t yet fixed and exploited it to capture flags from all other teams which brought BVU up to first place.”

Backman says the commitment to see the five-hour competition through to its end led to an exhilarating finish.

“They put on quite the performance,” says Backman, who has organized BVU-hosted competitions the past eight years, a practice that will continue this spring.

“At BVU, we regularly host our Capture the Flag (CTF) contest in the spring and Taylor University hopes to host its contests in the fall, so that our two universities can compete in events twice per year,” Backman says.

“A knowledge of software security is incredibly important for our graduates,” Backman continues. “As they go into the workplace, they will be responsible for writing high-quality and error-free code that keeps consumers’ private information from misuse and their personal safety from harm. To write code securely, software developers absolutely must take on the mindset of a hacker to be well-prepared and to anticipate malicious actions.”

McConnaughy’s interest in protecting the public stretches beyond computer science. The Kearney, Missouri, native, who served in the Nebraska Army National Guard from 2014 to 2016, earned a minor in criminal justice. Her BVU computer science capstone project involved both areas of study as she created a virtual reality (VR) use of force training simulation for police and military personnel.

While an undergraduate, McConnaughy, who transferred to BVU prior to the second semester of her freshman year, earned grants, scholarships, and spending money through her job at 2Fix, the University’s computer and IT help center. She also landed a paid internship with Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, working for the Principal’s IT department, assisting clients with computer issues.

“The work environment at Principal was fantastic,” says McConnaughy, who served as president for BVU’s Association for Computing Machinery organization, commonly known as the computer science club. “I fell in love with the computer field after working for 2Fix at BVU. I had always wanted to tie my criminal justice interest and military training with computer science. At BVU, I could do that. I’m happy for the journey I took through the military and another college,” McConnaughy concludes. “Ultimately, it all led me to BVU’s computer science program.”