Carnegie Mellon University

Emily Peterson

March 23, 2021

Marine Corps cyber operations with Emily Peterson

By Bill Brink

Emily Peterson sat on her friend’s couch in Aruba during spring break, applying to graduate school. She was a senior at the United States Naval Academy, which allows a small number of graduating students to complete postgraduate education before beginning their military service.

Later that year, she was at Carnegie Mellon.

“I tend to make a lot of my big life decisions pretty spontaneously,” said Peterson, a First Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps who completed the Institute for Politics and Strategy’s Master of Information Technology Strategy (MITS) program in 2019.

Currently, Peterson is enrolled in the Marine Corps’ Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) school for cyber operations. She recently received orders to spend the next three years in Hawaii, helping the Marines optimize their cyber presence, which began in 2018.

“It’s still a lot of figuring out the best way to employ cyber and what cyber really means for a tactical setting, and what it means in the Marine Corps as a whole,” she said. “The whole Marine Corps and DoD [Department of Defense] is still trying to figure that out.”

IPS, the School of Computer Science, and the College of Engineering administer the MITS program, which blends policy and decision science with the technical know-how needed to face the challenges of tomorrow. The program focuses on four areas: data science, politics and strategy, information security, and software and networked systems. During it, students complete a team-based project that applies the principles and techniques they learn to a practical problem. 

During her plebe (freshman) year, the Academy hosted a presentation of available majors, and Systems Engineering, which consisted of a lot of robotics, spoke to her.

“It was coding intensive, but it was coding for the sake of doing instead of coding for the sake of coding,” she said.

Three years later, on the couch in Aruba, she began the next step in her journey in that field. The Naval Academy allows twenty Navy and five Marine selects to enroll in graduate school before deployment, and while the Navy spots fill quickly, the Marine slots do not, and two remained available. With the help of Dave Root, an Associate Teaching Professor in the Institute for Software Research, the former MITS Coordinator, and a former Naval Flight Officer, Peterson entered the MITS program. 

Three courses stuck out to her: The Future of Warfare and Social Media, Technology, and Conflict, with Dr. Colin Clarke, her favorite professor during her time at CMU; and Contemporary American Foreign Policy, with Dr. Dani Nedal.

“History has definitely always interested me, but I never really formally got into it, so I learned a lot about diplomacy and American history that I feel like I should have known but didn’t know,” she said. “It was definitely a very well-rounded curriculum, which I thoroughly enjoyed.”

After Peterson completed the Marine Corps’ Basic Officer Course, the COVID-19 pandemic and Marine bureaucracy delayed her entry into cyber MOS. She spent a few months working for the Defense Digital Service, an internal arm of the Department of Defense, on programs intended to counter unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. She started cyber MOS in January.

“I’m learning a lot about the nitty-gritty network stuff that I never learned about,” she said. “A lot of my technical knowledge has been in higher-level programming, not understanding how routers and switches work. It’s definitely been new.”

Soon she’ll be off to Hawaii, a perfect place to nurture her passions of ultramarathoning and rock climbing. She’ll be helping the Marines shape their cyber operations, blending the high-level knowledge gleaned from Carnegie Mellon with the nuanced instruction Marines cyber school provided.

“It was really cool to see a lot of the policy side of things [at CMU], which, just being a Lieutenant in the military, a lower-ranking person, you see a lot of the low-level, tactical, zoomed-in picture,” Peterson said. “Just being in that educational, academic setting, you look at the greater picture, which I didn’t look at much at the Academy either while doing a lot of systems engineering. It was really cool to see a more strategic view of policy and military, from a very non-military environment, too, which I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Because the MITS program falls under the umbrella of three different schools, students have a broad range of courses from which to choose. Peterson recommends that MITS students avail themselves of that choice. 

“I definitely enjoyed expanding my horizons,” she said. “Taking courses that I wouldn’t normally take and learning that way.”