Student News

Clark is breaking down barriers and staking her claim in cybersecurity field

Photo courtesy of Stanley and Karen Pigman College of Engineering.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 22, 2024) — Tiffany Clark found herself entangled in a challenging predicament this fall. She grappled with conflicting options as a looming decision deadline cast its shadow. Many young adults her age would have coveted the intricacy of Clark’s dilemma: “Which well-paying, potentially career-making summer internship should I choose — the one nestled in the sunny theme park capital of the world or the other in glitzy proximity to the famed Hollywood sign?”

A junior computer science major in the University of Kentucky’s Stanley and Karen Pigman College of Engineering, Clark meticulously considered the prospect of interning for either Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California, or Lockheed Martin in Orlando, Florida, come the summer of 2024.

Both alternatives starkly contrast Clark’s upbringing in Caneyville, Kentucky. With its modest population of just over 500, the Grayson County community offers scarce professional prospects for individuals skilled in cybersecurity and software engineering.

Following the sudden death of her mother, Tiffany Clark was raised by her maternal grandmother and, later, her maternal aunt and grandfather, alongside her older brother. Throughout her formative years, their ventures seldom extended beyond close-knit Grayson County’s boundaries. With an expanded view of the world, however, she now grapples with the notion of continuing to reside in such a sparsely populated community.

“My grandfather’s lived there his entire life,” Clark laughs. “He won’t even drive outside the county. If he has to go to Hardin County to look for tractor parts, he calls up his friends to take him. He’s happy living there and not leaving the county, and that’s totally fine. I just could never do that.”

Clark committed to attending UK without ever setting foot on its campus. Yet, this daring leap of faith sparked a transformative college experience, awakening in her a profound wanderlust for global exploration. A testament to this profound curiosity, she spent two weeks abroad in England and France last year as part of UK’s Chellgren Center for Undergraduate Excellence. She aspires to leverage a career in cybersecurity to continue discovering the diverse facets of our increasingly interconnected world — and maybe catch a bad guy or two along the way.

“It’s mainly about having an impact,” Clark explains of her career aspirations. “Politically, I’m very neutral, but I can see that in terms of national security, the government does a lot of great things for us that we may never even know about, and cybersecurity plays a large part in that; so, I’m looking into the FBI or the CIA, or a defense contracting company that provides products and does contracts with the government.”

Because it can call upon skills in both computer and electrical engineering, Clark says that she enjoys the challenge of finding computer vulnerabilities and trying to find ways people can exploit or hack into systems. She says she did not own a computer until her senior year of high school. Now, however, she is breaking down barriers and staking her claim in the still-male-dominated field of computing.

“Being a female computer scientist can be great,” Clark explains. “It can make you stand out. But it can also be a little intimidating, maybe a bit of impostor syndrome, because your class will be dominated by males. Even with my internship last summer, the team had six interns, and I was the only girl. And in my office, there was only one woman, so it adds a little bit of ‘oh, I need to do great. I need to stand out,’ but I also needed to interact with these guys all the time.”

Globally, only about a quarter of people in cybersecurity roles are female. As vice president of UK’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, Clark works to empower her peers. Through outreach, she hopes to inspire women of all ages to consider taking STEM courses and develop an inclusive community within the Pigman College of Engineering. She learned about the possible internships at the Women in Engineering conference in Los Angeles, the world’s largest conference for women in engineering and technology.

A Presidential Scholar, Chellgren Fellow and a member of the UK Lewis Honors College, Clark says the support system she found at UK has been instrumental to her academic achievements. In particular, the mentorship she receives from Stanley and Karen Pigman has been particularly gratifying.

“I’m so thankful to be a Pigman Scholar because of the mentorship they provide,” Clark said. “Stan and Karen have my phone number! They’ll call us during midterms. They’ll ask ‘Do you need help? What do you need? Have you gone to this resource, that resource?’ They understand how difficult the coursework can be. Just having that kind of motivation — somebody telling you ‘Good job, you’re going to do great things’ — is really motivating.”

With the Pigmans’ encouragement, Clark has already completed two summer internships — including one in Boston for defense contractor Riverside — and is determined to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.

Clark’s pivotal decision to attend UK, coupled with the expansive possibilities inherent in her chosen field and the encouragement and support of mentors, didn’t just create opportunities; it shattered the confines of her small-town roots.

“When I get older, I really would like to travel somewhere in Asia, like South Korea,” Clark enthuses. “I do enjoy traveling. I want to go to a lot of different places, but definitely Asia. It’s a completely different culture. Going to England or even Paris, you can still see similarities to the U.S., and a lot of people there speak English. But Asia — the culture is totally different.”

The closest Clark may get to Asia in the immediate future, however, could be a visit to the China or Japan Pavilions at Epcot next summer. After thoughtful discussions with those whose insights she values and meticulously weighing the pros and cons associated with each internship, she ultimately chose the opportunity Lockheed Martin in balmy Orlando.

“While I did ask people for their opinion, and they gave it, everyone — including the Pigmans — told me that this was my decision and they were both good offers,” Clark says. “No one would have been disappointed, no matter which offer I accepted. Everyone told me to go with my gut and do what I want because, ultimately, it’s my life and my future. Both offers would have been great, and I’m just sad that I couldn’t do both.”

In the end, the choice boiled down to what is best suited for Clark’s future.

“I was given an offer in Northrop Grumman’s space unit,” Clark explains of what ultimately decided the Solomonic decision. “I believe that Lockheed Martin’s cyber unit will align better with my interests.”

At Lockheed Martin, Clark will be working in Rotary and Mission Systems, working in software engineering with the Training, Logistics and Sustainment team. Clark hopes that her decision will eventually lead to a leadership position where she can one day follow in the steps of her mentors, the Pigmans, and give back to her community and alma mater.

“They really encourage the circle of giving back once you’ve paid your dues,” says Clark, who currently works part-time in the college’s philanthropy office. “I’d like to do something like that, to give back to UK and the Pigman College of Engineering because they’ve had such an impact on me.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.