SMU Lyle engineering professor Mitch Thornton saw Michael Taylor’s potential when he was an undergraduate student and recruited him to work in the Darwin Deason Institute for Cyber Security.
But when it came time for Taylor to write his master’s thesis, he took on a very thorny cyber security issue. Thornton was blown away by what his student achieved:
“Michael did some truly groundbreaking work in devising a novel new technique to detect the presence of a prolific form of malware called ransomware,” Thornton explained. “When ransomware infects a victim’s computer, it encrypts all the victim’s files in a silent phase and then holds the victim’s files hostage. To decrypt the files, payment is demanded from the victim, usually in the form of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin. And many times the victim loses their files even after paying the ransom.”
If the ransomware is a new strain, anti-virus software and other traditional methods are not effective in detecting an infected computer.
“Michael showed that data already present internally in computers, information recorded by sensors that measure things like power usage and temperature, can be used to detect a ransomware infection – even if it is a new strain,” Thornton said. “This method works so well that SMU has filed a patent based on it.”
December 13, 2017
By Kim Cobb
DALLAS (SMU) – Michael Taylor will be the first to tell you that he was not ready for college when he graduated from Plano East High School in 2006. And he’ll also tell you that nobody was more surprised than he was when SMU admitted him in 2014, a little later than the average undergrad.
But Taylor’s disciplined approach to life, honed through five years in the Marine Corps, combined with the intelligence he learned to tap, has earned him a master’s degree from SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering that will be awarded Dec. 16. And after proving his mettle as a student researcher in Lyle’s Darwin Deason Institute for Cyber Security, Taylor has been awarded the first Raytheon IIS Cyber Elite Graduate Fellowship, which will fund his Ph.D. in quantum computing at SMU and then put him to work as an employee at Raytheon.
“Michael Taylor stood out to me when I first had him in an undergraduate class,” said Mitch Thornton, research director for the Deason Institute and Cecil H. Green Chair of Engineering at SMU. “I could sense there was something special about him and that he had a lot of talent. I actively encouraged Michael to do research with me and he has excelled in everything I have asked him to work on. He is a credit to the student body of SMU’s Lyle School, and a credit to the nation.”
Michael Taylor being promoted to corporal.
Taylor learned to focus on the details in the Marine Corps. He had sampled community college very briefly after high school, but it didn’t stick. He knew he didn’t have skills to trade for a decent job, so joining the Marine Corps made sense to him.
“Honestly? In retrospect, I wasn’t ready for school,” Taylor acknowledged.
Taylor’s dad was an SMU engineering alumnus, and this was not the career path he’d envisioned for his son. But it’s funny how things work themselves out. Taylor completed Marine basic training, and took an aptitude test to determine where his skills might fit the Marine Corp mission. He did very, very well.
“My score on that test – I qualified for every enlisted job in the Marine Corps,” Taylor said. “I got to pick what job I wanted.” Working as a calibration technician sounded interesting – a job that would require him to conduct testing for proper operation of a wide range of mechanical and electronic devices and tools. But before working in calibration, he’d have to go school for a year.
“Ironic, I know,” Taylor said, smiling. “I had to sign up for an extra year, so I ended up doing a five-year tour in the Marines.”
He spent most of that time working out of Camp Pendleton in California, but was deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from March through September 2010 – at the height of the surge of U.S. troops. “I wasn’t a combat guy,” Taylor said. “But even on base, sometimes, the rockets would come in the middle of the night.”
Nearing the end of his enlistment in 2012, Taylor was getting the hard sell to stay in and make the Marines a career. By now, he had decided he was ready for college, but the career planner he met with tried hard to talk him out of it –
predicting that Taylor would “fail again.”
“He actually told me if I got out of the Marine Corps and went back to college, I’d end up living under a bridge,” Taylor said, shaking his head. It just made him more determined to succeed.
He started back at community college, and this experience was very different. “It seemed like it was so hard the first time,” Taylor said. “What then seemed like a monumental task, now seemed like nothing. I started thinking – I might be able to do school, now.”
And he started thinking about SMU. Taylor’s grades at Collin County Community College were good – good enough to get him into his father’s alma mater.
Taylor never dared to think he could live up to what his Dad had accomplished, starting with the scholarship to attend SMU that Jim Taylor ’89 had received from Texas Instruments. “He was a technician there,” Taylor recalled, “and they paid for him to come here. As a kid, if you’d told me I could do something like that, too, I’d never have believed you. For me there was Albert Einstein, and Jim Taylor.”
Michael Taylor with father.
Michael Taylor came to the Hilltop on the GI Bill, and SMU’s Yellow Ribbon program for military veterans covered what the GI Bill didn’t. Then, the Darwin Deason Institute for Cyber Security picked up the cost of his master’s degree.
Taylor’s first semester at SMU’s Lyle School was a tough adjustment after his relatively easy path at community college, but that class with professor Thornton his second semester changed everything. “Dr. Thornton offered me a position working in the Deason Institute for Cyber Security,” Taylor said. “It’s been going great since then.”
Thornton’s influence and mentoring made all the difference for Taylor.
“If I had not met Dr. Thornton, there were times I wondered if I would have gotten my bachelor’s degree. I definitely wouldn’t be getting the master’s degree. And a Ph.D. wouldn’t have been something I ever considered.”
Taylor was interested in computer hardware when he arrived at SMU, but the Deason Institute opened the door to the contributions he could make in cyber security. He received the Lyle School’s 2017 Rick A. Barrett Memorial Award for outstanding work in computer science and engineering. And as he neared the completion of his master’s degree, he was tapped for the Raytheon Cyber Elite Graduate Fellowship and is looking forward to pursuing his Ph.D. in quantum computing.
“Quantum computers solve problems that are too difficult for classical computers to solve,” Taylor said. “Certain problems in classical computation are intractable – there’s no way you can solve them in this lifetime. It’s only a matter of time before quantum computers render all encryption obsolete.”
For Fred Chang, executive director of SMU’s Deason Institute and former research director for the National Security Agency (NSA), finding talented students like Taylor to fill the gaps in the cyber security workforce is “job one.” Chang testified before a congressional subcommittee in September that we are likely facing a worldwide shortage of cyber security workers five years from now.
“Today’s students will be responsible for designing, creating, operating, maintaining and defending tomorrow’s cyber infrastructure,” Chang explained. “We need a large and capable pool of folks to staff these positions for the future.”
For Taylor, cyber security is just plain compelling:
“I just like the challenge. There’s somebody out there that’s trying to crack what you have, to break you down – you have to be smarter than them. It’s a game!”