At the Intersection of Art, Compassion and Cybersecurity
By Tim Meehan
When Merryl Goldberg met Jen Easterly a few years ago at the RSA Conference – a cybersecurity convention – of all places, it signified a simple coming together of two professionals who have spent a portion of their adult lives protecting nations of people.
The right place at the right time.
But perhaps it was serendipitous for another reason. For how do you explain a random meeting between an American national security expert and a music professor that would eventually become a lifelong connection?
The most unlikely but accurate answer is art and compassion – two areas that both Goldberg and Easterly said are essential to showing a human side to cybersecurity.
Easterly, the Director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and Lisa Einstein, the Executive Director of CISA’s Advisory Committee, came to Cal State San Marcos earlier this month for a day-long series of events with students and faculty to discuss the role of art and compassion in the highly classified and technical world of cybersecurity.
“The opportunity to have our students engage with Jen Easterly and Lisa Einstein on the human side of cybersecurity, including how the arts, empathy and imagination matter, was absolutely wonderful,” said Goldberg, who in addition to her role as music professor is executive director of Center ARTES on campus. “Even more so, having our computer science majors, music majors, future teachers, STEM and STEAM ambassadors and cybersecurity club members all gather and decide to work together on future projects is exactly what we hope for in a learning environment.”
The event, which was tabbed as the intersection of art and cybersecurity, began with an interactive class session with CSUSM students led by Einstein that included music and dance. The topic of the class was integrating art in cybersecurity, and it actively kicked off the visit with a positive tone of what can sometimes be a dry and serious subject.
Next up was a panel discussion on arts, empathy and cybersecurity that was bookended by creative and inspirational musical performances. Liora Gubkin, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences, introduced the panel and discussed the importance of working together across disciplines.
“What most impresses me about the learning opportunity before us is the recognition that complex, technical challenges aren't just tech challenges,” Gubkin told the crowd. “We have to work across the disciplines that often separate our knowledge spaces to successfully confront the challenges we face. And that regardless of the particularity of the problem, a mindset that accesses our creativity and foregrounds our empathy is essential.”
Einstein is the picture of this integration. She attended performing arts school from grades 4-9 in Canada. She studied physics at Princeton and then danced professionally. She was also Stanford’s first recipient of a dual master’s degree in computer science and international policy.
Einstein introduced the original song “Just a Girl Risin’ ” that she wrote while serving in the Peace Corps following a situation where a young boy explained to her that his sister couldn’t do math and science because girls weren’t good at those subjects.
“It's genuinely how I learned since I was a kid,” she said. “I've written songs to learn stuff. When I moved from Canada to the U.S., I wrote a song about the amendments to learn all of them. I've always engaged creatively with learning. And so if I want to remember something, I tried to write a song about it. And if that resonates, that’s even better.”
The panel also included CSUSM art, media and design associate professor Lucy HG Solomon and Ranjeeta Basu, a professor of economics and faculty director of the Center for Contemplative Practices on campus.
It concluded with a three-song set – “The Bugs, They Are A-Changin’ ” written by Einstein to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changin’ ” about the need to perform regular updates to our mobile phones; a number with Goldberg playing the soprano saxophone and music department chair Ching-Ming Cheng on piano; and a rendition of the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine”. Music assistant professor Aaron Humble lent his vocal talents to all three songs.
The link throughout the songs was Goldberg, first playing a drum then a saxophone. Easterly was quick to credit her close friend with keeping empathy and mindfulness at the forefront in whatever one does.
She was impressed but not shocked at Goldberg’s overwhelming popularity at RSA.
“Meryl is such a force for positive energy,” said Easterly, who was confirmed as Director by the U.S. Senate on July 21, 2021. “You know, she immediately has a way of just connecting and was so kind and really explained her story there. And then I read about her because they did a story afterwards. It was actually the most popular talk at RSA.”
As the newest agency in the federal government, CISA is continuing to build its culture through core principles focused on four themes – imagination, empathy, honest feedback and communication.
The most important thing to Easterly is to create a culture and continue to build that culture around these core principles.
“I'm just a big believer that empathy is a human skill that all of us need to embrace,” said Easterly, who lost her younger brother to suicide. “Because fundamentally, being able to create trust and high-performing teams, and being an effective leader, is about imagining yourself in the shoes of others so that you can feel their experiences and create compassion for who they are.”
In 2019, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security designated CSUSM as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education for the M.S. Cybersecurity program. A bachelor of science and a master of science in cybersecurity are both offered online through Extended Learning.
Easterly was impressed in her first visit to campus with the culture of care that exists.
“From my short experience here, I've been totally energized by everything about this campus,” said Easterly, whose dad was a speech writer while her mom was an English teacher who focused on poetry. “The physical beauty of it, the diversity of it. But really, mostly because of the people. From the minute I arrived and met with some of the representatives to meeting the faculty, a lot of the deans and heads of departments and then getting a chance to spend time with the students – both students of arts and music and students of computer science and cybersecurity – it's been a totally electrifying experience.”
The President Biden nominee said she’s always grateful when she’s able to get out of Washington, D.C., particularly when she has the opportunity to spend time talking about the things she’s most passionate about.
At the top of that list is ensuring everybody has a deep appreciation for what they need to do to stay safe online.
“A lot of getting that across effectively is being able to communicate,” she said. “And so I love this morning's discussion about the value of communication, feedback, imagination and empathy because empathy is just a way to connect with people. If you're able to connect with people, then you're able to create that trust. If you're able to create that trust, then communication around the things that you need to do to stay safe online becomes more natural.”
The day continued with a fireside chat at the Innovation Hub and a student engagement event with STEM and STEAM ambassadors through the Center for Research and Engagement in STEM Education (CRESE). It concluded with a BBQ and jam session at Goldberg’s nearby home.
An event that took years to put together and more than six months to plan logistically ended like it should have – with Goldberg, Easterly, Einstein and others making impromptu music.
“Embracing different backgrounds and ways of thinking to solve challenges and problems will no doubt move us forward in many arenas,” Goldberg said. “I could not have been more honored to have the CISA team here with our students and faculty, and I could not be more honored to watch our students shine with them.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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