CyberAegis Aether shows success in statewide efforts to bring girls into cybersecurity and STEM.

Next week, thousands of students from across the country will compete in the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot XI Finals in Baltimore, the culmination of a year of hard work and dedication.

Among those teams is CyberAegis Aether, a group of five seventh and eighth grade girls from Oak Valley Middle School in San Diego, who are ranked third among all middle school CyberPatriot teams in the U.S. This dynamic group of young women shows that anyone can excel in cyber competitions and cyber careers, regardless of gender.

Beyond that, though, team members Rachel Lee and Ellen Xu said that the friendships they’ve formed will last into high school and beyond. Part of the team’s success is how well they work together and how close they’ve become.

“We’ll always come back to this group of girls. We’ve all experienced so much together,” said Lee, who is the team’s captain and CyberAegis president at Oak Valley Middle School. “This team will always have a special place in my heart.”

“It doesn’t feel like we’re just a team,” Xu said. “It feels like we’re a family or really close friends,”

Under the direction of Coach Paul Johnson, CyberAegis is a force to be reckoned with, with six of its teams competing in CyberPatriot Nationals. To gain a competitive edge, Lee said team members spend an average of two hours each night studying on their own in addition to scheduled practices.

Even if the team does not win in Baltimore, the girls say the extra effort will be worth it because it’s helped teach them valuable time management skills.

“There are only 24 hours in each day, so we make sure that we make use of each minute and get everything done,” Xu said. “We make sure that we get really in-depth on things that matter to us.”

When CyberAegis Aether competes, they are representing much more than themselves or even their school. Even at a young age, they are aware of the spotlight that’s on them as young cyber leaders.

“As an all-girls team, we want to convey the message to the rest of the world and help other girls around the world know that STEM fields are gender-neutral fields,” Xu said.

It’s a badge they wear proudly on behalf of girls around the United States and around the world.

“When we compete, we’re representing all the girls who are underrepresented in the STEM field and don’t have as many opportunities as we do,” Lee said.

Teams like CyberAegis Aether are an important part of meeting the demand for cybersecurity workers across California. Meeting this need is a high priority for the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, which supports the national Girls Go CyberStart program.

Girls Go CyberStart is a series of interactive challenges designed to introduce girls to cybersecurity. More than 6,000 high school girls across the U.S. participated in the program in 2018.

“California businesses are struggling to fill cybersecurity-related jobs with qualified employees. As we work to close that gap, it’s critical that we bring greater diversity to the field of cybersecurity so that our businesses are better able to anticipate the full range of threats they face,” said Governor’s Chief Economic and Business Advisor and Director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development Lenny Mendonca. “The GirlsGoCyberStart Program is an important way for us to get more young women and girls to consider cybersecurity as a viable and fulfilling career path. There’s no question that a more diverse workforce leads to stronger businesses and a stronger California.”

Other opportunities for middle and high school girls to become involved in cybersecurity include the California Mayors Cyber Cup and the CyberTech Girls program.

Lee offered a few words of advice for any girls who are interested in cybersecurity but worried about being one of the only girls in the room.

“Don’t let the guys put you down because you can be just as good them and you can be even better than them,” Lee said. “Surround yourself with people who love you and support your and don’t be afraid to follow your passion.”