Faculty Spotlight: Deep Ramanayake - Computer Science
May 12, 2023
Born and raised in Sri Lanka, South Asia, Deep Ramanayake yearned for an opportunity.
That opportunity took him to the other side of the world and led to a career at Xavier University in the Computer Science Department. Ramanayake’s older sister made the journey to the United States before he did, and she became a calming presence for his journey.
Ramanayake was studying in Sri Lanka and at the time, there were riots and trouble was brewing. Ramanayake’s sister was working on her Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati.
She asked her brother, “Why don’t you come here (to the U.S.)?” Ramanayake said. “That’s how I ended up here on the other side of the world.”
Ramanayake didn’t come right to Cincinnati. He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Louisiana Monroe. It wasn’t for him. The America he knew was what he’d seen in movies – big buildings towering over bustling, bright cities. In Louisiana, he found bayous and moss-covered trees.
It was a culture shock. At the end of that first semester, Ramanayake went to visit his sister in Cincinnati around Christmas time.
“I told her, ‘I can’t do this, I’m going back home,’” said Ramanayake, whose sister told him he could stay with her, and they’d work to find a school nearby.
Ramanayake found Northern Kentucky University, which matched his previous scholarship and made it possible for him to stay in college. His situation changed immediately. He stayed with his sister. The stress subsided. It allowed him to focus on his goals.
Ramanayake studied Computer Science and Mathematics at NKU. Then Ramanayake headed to Morehead State University for his master’s degree, and there, he found something unexpected and life-changing: he became a teaching assistant.
That spark was about to turn into a flame.
“This is what I want to do,” Ramanayake thought. “I never imagined I was going to be a teacher – coming from another country – but I’m glad I had the chance.”
He found his first teaching job at Gateway Community College, across the river in Northern Kentucky. Ramanayake spent almost 10 years there teaching Programming and Network Administration.
Around 2012-13, Ramanayake noticed an increase in cybersecurity attacks. He saw story after story about hackers penetrating a large company’s system. With a background in programming and networking, Ramanayake felt the urge to explore cybersecurity. He started work on a few certifications.
In 2015, the National Security Agency was offering graduate classes in cybersecurity. Ramanayake signed up and as he started learning more, he also began teaching cybersecurity courses, and found some part-time work as a cybersecurity consultant.
During that chapter of Ramanayake’s life, one of his colleagues at Gateway informed him there was a teaching position open at Xavier in Ramanayake’s field. He wasn’t looking for a new teaching job at the time, but in 2019, he went for it.
Today, he’s a teaching professor in the Computer Science Department and the Director of Xavier’s Cybersecurity Program.
His initial directives were to build the program, build the classes, and get the program validated by the NSA.
That NSA validation is a big deal. It means Xavier and its Cybersecurity Program meet the standard for academic excellence, and that designation finally arrived in March of 2023.
A great deal of passion was required from Ramanayake to achieve the NSA designation, and that same passion overflows into his classes. Every Friday, Ramanayake and a group of cybersecurity students meet to practice for cyber defense competitions. Those competitions run throughout the year either independently or against other schools. They also had to provide cybersecurity resources for the community, which was a requirement to receive the NSA designation.
Ramanayake’s program works well because it weaves two important sectors together. Programming and cybersecurity.
“The advantage of our program is that as soon as they have a good solid background in programming, they can use that knowledge and go into cybersecurity to find vulnerabilities,” Ramanayake said.
One of his favorite classes at Xavier is Pentesting, or penetration testing. It’s a popular class for the students and the teacher.
“Throughout the semester, we find vulnerabilities on different programs and operating systems,” said Ramanayake. “I teach them to think like a hacker so they could stop those attacks and they can think before they get exploited.”
In his cyber defense class, Ramanayake’s job is to help students understand how to protect networks and the different technologies that can be applied for cyber defense.
The cyber defense competitions are the best place for Ramanayake’s students to implement and apply what’s learned in the classroom to real-world scenarios.
Not long ago, one of the competitions Ramanayake’s class participated in was a red team/blue-team challenge: the red team attacks and the blue team defends and must maintain the business functionality and protect the network.
Ramanayake’s job is not only to teach these things, but he also feels a responsibility to make sure his students understand that what they’re learning can ultimately be used the right way or the wrong way.
“Once you learn those skills,” Ramanayake said, “it’s like a double-edged sword so you could use it for good or bad. But here at Xavier I am teaching ethical cybersecurity and Jesuit values and they will find ways to use cybersecurity for the greater good.”
An opportunity took Ramanayake around the world. Some courage and a change of scenery kept him here.
His reward? He gets to wake up every day and do something he’s passionate about, and he loves that he gets to do that at Xavier.