A Human to Know: Dr. Ashley Podhradsky

Blog Post
Aug. 12, 2019

What is the secret to nurturing and guiding the interest of fourteen thousand girls in cybersecurity? Dakota State University’s Associate Dean of the Beacom College of Computer and Cyber Sciences - and New America Cybersecurity Fellow - Dr. Ashley Podhradsky is clear: provide the tools and guidance, but let them discover the magic of cybersecurity for themselves. Here she tells us how she came to be a cybersecurity leader and about the philosophy behind her work in bringing more women into and up through the field.

Becoming an Educator

In 2006, after taking numerous courses where she was the only female student in the class, Ashley graduated from Dakota State University with a Bachelor of Science in electronic commerce and computer security. Her first job after college was working in the IT department for a Native American tribe. The organization had a casino, healthcare, court system, and education environment and required an understanding of banking, finance, and data privacy regulations.

While working for the tribe, Ashley found the inspiration for what would grow into her teaching style. When she encountered problems, colleagues would often just resolve it themselves, without explaining how they did so. Ashley immediately recognized the opportunities to improve on this model, and instead of saying, “Move over, let me take care of this,” she chooses the model of, “Let me show you.” According to Ashley, this gives the person the knowledge and confidence that he or she needs to do it next time. It was experiences like these that influenced her decision to get her master’s degree and explore teaching.

"If there were more women around the table, perhaps the environment would be different?"

While pursuing her Master’s of Science in information systems, Ashley continued to work full-time for the tribe. One day at work, it was discovered that files on the company’s server had been modified. The organization had to determine who orchestrated the intrusion and how they did it. This was Ashley’s introduction to digital forensics. She loved the excitement of solving the puzzle by figuring out who did it, how and when. This event inspired Ashley to return to Dakota State University to pursue her PhD in information systems focusing on information assurance.

In 2010, Ashley was the first woman to graduate from Dakota State University with a doctoral degree, and she continued on to accept positions at first Drexel University and then Dakota State University. At both, she began her position as the only woman to serve as a permanent full member of the faculty. Over time she stopped accepting the imbalance as a given, and she found herself wondering what she could do about it. Ashley recounts thinking: "If there were more women around the table, perhaps the environment would be different?“ She then used the resources at her disposal, created the ones that were not, and forged ahead to not only stand up for herself, but to make a difference in the lives of many.

Hands-off Approach

In addition to being both an associate professor and associate dean at DSU, Ashley is leading a number of initiatives to introduce people, especially girls, to the world of cybersecurity. Ashley encourages students to learn through discovery. When asked about her reasons for employing this method Ashley says, “you only make the PowerPoint mistake once.” You can prepare a presentation where you talk at students, but by having the students working with systems themselves, not only do they remain engaged from start to finish, they also have that “a-ha" moment where they realize they can do this.

For example, instead of lecturing about digital forensics, Ashley demonstrates by plugging a USB storage device into a computer. She shows the students files that are on the USB, deletes the files, and then has students try to recover the deleted files. It is normal for some students to move to the back of the classroom and let other students take charge of the exercise, but Ashley makes sure to get every student involved so that everyone has a chance to discover their capability. Demonstrations such as this one are crucial for a multitude of reasons. The hands-on nature provides a first spark of realization for a student who may not have had an interest in technology. By actively solving a problem using tech tools, many students begin to see themselves in this space for the first time. Also, by virtue of recovering “deleted” files, students learn that nothing is ever really deleted, and they become more mindful about practicing good cyber hygiene.

Shaping the Future

The “let me show you” method Ashley adopted from years of working in tech, coupled with puzzle solving skills in digital forensics and her relentless dedication to equipping herself with the credentials she needed to demand authority, all gave rise to the perfect conditions for CybHer to be born. CybHER™ was jointly founded by Dr. Pam Rowland and Ashley. The organization is dedicated to empowering, motivating, educating, and changing the perception of girls and women in cybersecurity.

CybHER has been involved in inspiring girls and women for enough years now that they have data to illustrate the efficacy of the programs. Not only that, many of the women impacted by her programs during early levels of education are now graduating college and going on to work in the field of cybersecurity and information assurance. These women have become living testimonies to the power of the hands-off teaching method. CybHER’s work goes beyond merely generating an interest in STEM, and is creating a connection so powerful that early interests have turned into careers.

Many of these women have also become mentors for the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. It is not abnormal for Ashley to have one of her former students co-teach a CybHer program with her. This collaboration not only makes it easier for the younger students to connect with someone closer to their age, but it also helps foster the culture of mentorship for the previous students. The network of students whose lives have been impacted by the “let me show you” model of teaching continues to grow with every passing CybHER program. The expansion of this network illustrates how Ashley and Pam are taking strides to close cybersecurity’s gender gap.