Intern helps U.S. Coast Guard locate origin of fake distress calls

Laura Ayres

Laura Ayres, a computer information systems student at Shorter University, participated in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program at the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut. There, she used her programming skills to develop a software interface that will be used by the U.S. Coast Guard to help minimize the incidence of prank distress calls on the open water.

Laura Ayres’ participation in the FIRST LEGO League robotics competition as a middle schooler didn’t just earn her a trophy and bragging rights, it also laid the groundwork for a lifelong career.

“My experience as part of a robotics team introduced me to practical, real-life problem solving, engineering, and computer programming,” said Ayres. Her love for the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields was instilled at a young age under the guidance of her parents, who are both mechanical engineers. “It may be hard work, but STEM careers can be a lot of fun. There are so many wonderful opportunities that go along with them.”

Ayres, who is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in computer information systems from Shorter University in Rome, Georgia, embraced one such opportunity this past summer as a participant in U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program at the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut.

The program provides students who major in homeland security-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines an opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the U.S.

Ayres’ task was to develop a software interface for a device used to pinpoint the direction of a radio signal. The U.S. Coast Guard may use the device to help identify the locations of hoax callers. Ayres explained that the U.S. Coast Guard, just like 9-1-1 operators, receives prank calls that tie up important resources for legitimate emergencies. Instead of receiving prank calls over the telephone, the fake distress calls transmit over the radio.

Under the mentorship of Alan Arsenault, branch chief at the U.S. Coast Guard Research & Development Center, Ayres spent her days programming and testing her software, which allows operators to control the direction-finding device via a tablet. She also toured various U.S. Coast Guard units including Sector Long Island Sound in New Haven, Connecticut, and attended multiple trainings including “Cyber Range” training, a two-day cybersecurity course offered at the Coast Guard Academy.

“I very much enjoyed this experience and would certainly recommend it to others. I think it is an excellent opportunity for students not only to get real-world research experience, but also to gain insight into what it’s like to work in a federal facility,” said Ayres, who envisions pursuing a career in computer programming, software design or cybersecurity. “I enjoy taking life one step at a time, and I’m going to try to keep an open mind about my career. Because of the DHS HS-STEM internship, I am now considering working with a federal agency or the military upon graduation.”

Ayres believes there is an ever-present need for more people in STEM careers, and she encourages those pursuing STEM degrees to take advantage of research opportunities like the DHS HS-STEM Program.

“It was such a wonderful, exciting experience to be able to participate in this program. I gained a lot of technical experience that will help me in my future career and also got to research alongside a lot of really smart people,” said Ayres. “Even though I was just an intern and only had nine weeks to work on the project, it was so neat to be able to contribute to a project that will be used to make America a safer place.”

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.