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“I’m kind of a geek, a big gamer,” said St. Mary’s University alumnus Mark Maldonado with a smile. “Every week, my kids, some friends, and I play Dungeons & Dragons.”  

Wearing blue jeans and a graphic T-shirt depicting the 1985 film The Goonies, the United States Department of Defense employee admitted to dressing like that for work. 

Though Maldonado’s personality is laid back, he recently completed some serious work while a graduate student at St. Mary’s University. With the help of a Master of Science in Cybersecurity from St. Mary’s, which he earned in May 2019, Maldonado morphed into an entrepreneur and cybersecurity expert who has built a system to protect children from browsing adult content online.

St. Mary’s University cybersecurity master’s program graduates students with skills and purpose.

The St. Mary’s cybersecurity degree

The St. Mary’s University Master of Science in Cybersecurity is a comprehensive program covering three main areas: the technical aspects of cybersecurity, management and business issues, and cyber policies and laws.

Through extensive hands-on experience, St. Mary’s students gain deep knowledge of the technical aspects of cybersecurity. In the university’s dedicated cybersecurity laboratory, students learn how to protect digital assets by understanding the approaches of different attacks. An internship component also ensures students graduate with industry experience, ready for cybersecurity jobs in this rapidly growing market.

St. Mary’s also offers a graduate certificate in cybersecurity and a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a cybersecurity track. Students of all levels benefit from the academic experience of faculty members with industry experience.

“With classes taught by those with extensive industry experience – from the FBI and the San Antonio Police Department’s Cybercrime Unit, to the Southwest Research Institute – our students are mentored by leaders in the field,” said Ayad Barsoum, associate professor of computer science who helped create the cybersecurity programs.

Veteran-turned-entrepreneur

Before his cybersecurity training, Maldonado spent 15 years in the Air Force, including a tour in Afghanistan, working with computers. After leaving active duty, he wanted to add to his technical knowledge base.   

In Fall 2016, he enrolled at St. Mary’s.  

“My prior military training, which was really grueling, made the transition into the cybersecurity graduate program easier,” Maldonado said. “Also, I’ve practically been a developer since I was 12.”

The San Antonio native’s father was a software engineer who performed disk operating system (DOS) programming at home.  

“I was curious, so he gave me a textbook,” said Maldonado, who now has three children of his own. “I read the whole thing and ended up writing a calculator program.”

Securing children’s safety

While in the cybersecurity program, a fellow parent’s concern about her children accessing inappropriate content online inspired the idea behind his final research project.  

Having already built hardware components for a proxy server (a server which people use to access other computers), Maldonado decided to develop a neural network – in other words, artificial intelligence. 

Maldonado’s project, titled Web Proxy Analytics Engine, the research behind which was published in the International Journal of Cyber Research and Education in December 2018, is a proxy server intended for home users that is “trained” to block web content based on user preference.

This can include content from adult websites, political websites, and even sports websites, if, for example, “you never want to hear news about a particular team,” said Maldonado, a proud Dallas Cowboys fan. 

The proxy server’s neural network proactively blocks content using Maldonado’s complex algorithms.

Barsoum said Maldonado’s research “combined machine learning techniques, natural language techniques, and cybersecurity tools to provide safe web browsing for kids and allow parents to monitor, control, and protect them.” 

The proxy server, which is half the size of a shoebox, is something Maldonado and two of his business partners are preparing for market release. Their company name is NVByte, and the company has plans to launch its first product called Vital.  

“From the welcoming and homey environment of the campus to the diverse culture of the program, I enjoyed my St. Mary’s education,” he said. “This program, which was heavy on the programming side, really allowed me to get my hands dirty. I liked that.”

Learn more about a master’s in cybersecurity from St. Mary’s University by visiting stmarytx.edu/cybersecurity.  

Alex Salinas

Alex Z. Salinas lives in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of a full-length book of poetry, WARBLES. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from St. Mary’s University.