Reza Nikoopour’s students email him hipster cat memes. Hidden in slight pixel color adjustments are bits of information that comprise one of the class’s major projects: exploring steganography.
Students from Cal State Fullerton meet once a week to listen to Reza, an Information Security engineer who helps secure Cloud platforms at Riot, lecture on topics that include everything from web security and malware to physical security and cryptography, and yes, they learn how to hide data in cat memes. Reza’s been teaching Introduction to Computer Security for the past few years, which is an elective course that provides students with a basic understanding of computer security theory and practices. While classwork and projects range from watching surveillance documentaries to doing in-depth research into government spying programs, Reza’s go-to advice for students is—just do stuff. “When I see my students who just try things out and then come back to me, it’s like, wow. You’re doing it. I can’t tell you how to pentest but you can go try, hit a wall, and then we can talk about how to move forward together.”
As an alumni of Cal State Fullerton, Reza welcomed the opportunity to give back to the university that enabled his own career progression. His professors put so much time and energy into his life, he says, so when they called and asked him to be a part of their Computer Science department, he wanted to contribute back and make the same difference for other people. It turns out, teaching has helped Reza’s current projects too: “Because now, being on the other side of the classroom, I didn’t just have to know the concepts, I had to understand them and be able to articulate them for another wider set of people.” He encourages his students to constantly question everything, because “I get to learn from my students, which is freaking awesome.” He admires his students and their commitment to challenging everything… even when he catches them watching esports during class.
The most satisfying part of teaching for Reza comes from hearing back from students outside of his lectures. Several of his students have gone on to work in security, and others contact him to describe their individual research into fields like penetration testing or software engineering. “I get to see this knowledge they’ve gained, partially from my class, partially from their own research, and they’re applying it to their lives and making their lives better.“
“That’s… that’s the whole goal right there."