Prepared to Defend: Computer Science Student Luis Plascencia Has Been Groomed to Combat Cyber Threats

Luis Plascencia became interested in cybersecurity while competing in cyber competitions during high school. Today he helps create those competitions.
Luis Plascencia was recently named National CyberHero of the month.

The cybersecurity industry faces challenges from a variety of foes with a wide range of goals. But whether they’re pursuing financial crimes, terrorism or acts of espionage, these cyber villains share at least one concerning trait:

They’re getting better.

“Tactics of bad actors are constantly changing year after year, so the idea of having to keep up with these evolutions seems overwhelming to me at times,” said Luis Plascencia, a third year computer science student.

Fortunately, Plascencia is up for the task, having gained confidence in his cybersecurity abilities through his long association with the Cal Poly California Cybersecurity Institute.

“A lot of concepts in cybersecurity are just so fascinating,” Plascencia said.  “In my eyes, it’s the study of imperfection in technology and human psychology. I feel like generally we expect technology to be completely safe, but once you start looking deeper into the various vulnerabilities present in any device, you start to realize what the bigger picture truly looks like.”

In October, Plascencia was named National CyberHero by synED, a non-profit organization that promotes education. Specifically, the organization commended Plascencia for being an inspiring leader in cyber education and outreach.

Luis Plascencia, who once competed in the California Cyber Innovation Challenge as a high school student, now helps design the competitions for the Cal Poly California Cybersecurity Institute, where he works as a software developer.

One of his roles as a lead software developer at CCI has entailed designing, managing and writing code for the California Cyber Innovation Challenge, a virtual 7-hour forensics and cybersecurity competition designed for middle and high school students. A resident of nearby Cambria, Plascencia had actually participated in the CCIC throughout high school.

“Because of these competitions, my level of interest in cybersecurity and computer science kept increasing year after year,” he said.

Henry Danielson, a technology advisor for the CCI, has known Plascencia since he was a student in Cambria’s Coast Unified School District, where Danielson has also worked as director of technology.

“I have worked with Luis since he was in middle school and helped and watched him grow into a magnificent cybersecurity professional,” Danielson said.

At Coast Union High School, Plascencia was a member of the squad that won the best new team award in 2017. Well aware of Plascencia’s technical and public speaking skills, Danielson helped him land the position at CCI.

Plascencia’s continued involvement with the challenge, even in college, shows that the event is succeeding in its goal of garnering interested in cyber security, said Danielle Borrelli, operations coordinator.

Luis Plascencia started the Cal poly Digital Transformation Club, hoping to attract diversity to tech.
Luis Plascencia said keeping up with cyber threats can be intimidating, but he’s up for the challenge.

“The mission is to drive workforce development, and Luis is the perfect example of the success of the competition and program,” Borrelli said. “We know several other students on similar paths as Luis, and they got their start or a leg up with the CCIC.” 

As a CCI employee, she said Plascencia is a quick-learning innovator and problem solver with a positive outlook.

“Luis is genuinely a good person, and it’s evident in his conversations and interactions with others,” she said. “It also bleeds into his work as he strives for excellence in all that he does.”

In addition to his CCIC work, Plascencia created Cal Poly’s Digital Transformation Club, which seeks to bring together a diverse group of students from different majors to research, innovate and problem solve a specific issue – climate change being the current focus. And he works on CCI’s Cyber to Schools program helping underserved students around the country learn progressively more challenging computer science and cybersecurity skills while finding nontraditional pathways to cyber careers.

Adding diversity to cybersecurity, he said, adds more perspective, experience and potential for innovation.

“By bringing more students from various backgrounds, we find ourselves a window of opportunity for a more well-versed community of problem solvers in the field,” he said.

Plascencia’s parents were both born in Mexico, where he lived for four years, beginning in 2008. That experience, he said, gave him perspective and made him appreciate the greater opportunities in the United States.

Now a third year student, he spends much time on self-reflection.

“If my schedule permits, I wake up at 5 a.m. to journal about my plans for the day and the long-term goals I set for myself, almost as a reminder of what I’m dedicating my life to,” he said.

Plascencia has been wracking up experience toward his goals. This past summer, he was an intern with the Department of Defense, and in the fall, he began an internship with Cal Poly’s Digital Transformation Hub. Next summer, he will begin a prestigious internship as a software engineer with Microsoft’s cloud security team near Seattle.

After graduation, he is interested in addressing malware or DDoS (denial of service) attacks.

While cybercriminals are becoming ever more sophisticated in their tactics, Plascencia’s past has groomed him for the challenge he is eager to face.

“None of this would’ve been possible without the phenomenal people in my life who I’ve had the pleasure to work and interact with — from those who helped me relearn how to speak and read English in middle school, to my teachers and classmates supporting our cybersecurity efforts in high school, and now to those at the CCI and DxHub that give us the motivation and opportunity to create an impact on the world around us,” he said. “I am forever grateful for all their support and aim towards paying it forward in my life.”

The Cal Poly College of Engineering understands there has been an enormous amount of turmoil and transition due to Coronavirus (COVID-19). As we continue offering support to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, we also continue providing critical updates as well as college highlights. Ours is a college full of creative and bright engineers and staff. For more information on COVID-19 visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. For more information on how Cal Poly is responding to COVID-19, visit the Cal Poly Coronavirus website Coronavirus website.

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