Interview with Ioulia Rytikova, Ph.D. about the M.S. in Applied Information Technology Program at George Mason University

About Ioulia Rytikova, Ph.D.: Dr. Rytikova is a full-time professor in the Information Sciences and Technology department in the School of Computing, College of Engineering and Computing, at Mason. She received her B.S./M.S. degree in Automated Control Systems Engineering and Information Processing and her Ph.D. in Automated Control Systems from National University of Science and Technology.

Dr. Rytikova is a passionate educator who mentors and supports graduate students in the M.S. in Applied Information Technology (AIT) program throughout their entire academic career. Dr. Rytikova brings both extensive knowledge and excitement into her classes. As an Associate Chair for Graduate Studies, she often meets with students one-on-one and provides encouragement and support for their personal development and growth. Above all, Dr. Rytikova helps students identify and prepare for the career they want.

Though her research interests are in the areas of data sciences and Big Data analytics, educational data mining, machine learning, optimization, and decision-support systems, her passion is in the field of learning sciences and analytics which allows her to incorporate the latest developments in learning and teaching into her courses to better assist students.

She constantly looks for ways to improve the learning experience of her students, both for the courses she teaches and the research she conducts. In her role as a co-director of Mason Engineering’s Personalized Learning in AIT lab, she is developing innovative teaching techniques to support a research-based, student-centered active-learning environment in the classroom and online.

Two areas she is particularly interested in: active learning, which increases students’ engagement and motivation in the classroom, and personalized learning and individual mentoring, which help students take ownership of their skill development.

She is a firm believer in the power of education to shape people. Today, more than ever, educators are uniquely positioned to inspire students to find their voice and achieve their full potential. Helping a young person develop the abilities and skills essential for a lifetime of success is what she most enjoys about teaching!

In over 15 years of her career in higher education both in the US and Europe, she acquired significant work experience in providing leadership in the areas of innovative teaching and learning, instructional design, and distance education in a variety of STEM disciplines, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. She designed and developed many new programs, concentrations, and courses in the emerging areas of data sciences and Big Data analytics, computer and information technologies, health information technologies, and statistical analysis.

For her exceptional efforts in the classroom and her contributions to the educational process, Dr. Rytikova received recognition from her outstanding students, colleagues, other universities, and industry partners. Dr. Rytikova is the recipient of several prestigious teaching awards, including the 2021 Mason Online Teaching Excellence Award and 2020 Mason Teachers of Distinction Award.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of George Mason University’s Online Master of Science in Applied Information Technology, and how it is structured? May we have more information about how this program prepares students to design, manage, and maintain information systems? Could you elaborate on the Cyber Security concentration, and how it equips students with the skills to ensure the security of diverse information systems?

[Dr. Ioulia Rytikova] The mission of the M.S. in Applied Information Technology program is to prepare individuals of competence and character for a successful career in academia, industry, or government in the areas related to computing through their coursework, research, and professional development activities. To achieve this mission, the program is committed to:

  • Offer a high-quality curriculum that leverages scholarship, academic research, and industry best practices, processes, and methodologies in the fundamental and emerging areas of information science and technology, including Cyber Security, Data Science, Machine Learning, Intelligence Methods, Human-Computer Interaction, and Information Technology Management;
  • Recruit nationally recognized experts in the fundamental and emerging areas of Computer Science and Information Science and Technology;
  • Provide mentoring for students to encourage and support their professional development;
  • Provide proactive advising to ensure student success and retention.

Completion of the MS program requires a minimum of 30 approved graduate credits (10 courses).

To provide a common background in the fundamentals of information sciences and technology, all students are required to complete four core courses as follows:

  • AIT 512: Algorithms and Data Structures Essentials
  • AIT 524: Database Management Systems
  • AIT 542: Fundamentals of Computing Platforms
  • AIT 664: Information: Representation, Processing and Visualization

In addition to the core courses, students must choose a concentration within the program by taking six courses from one of the concentration areas listed below:

  • Cyber Security
  • Cyber-Human Systems
  • Data Analytics and Intelligence Methods
  • IT Management

A large list of electives allows deep specialization in each concentration helping students prepare for a successful career in the chosen field of work. For instance, in the Cyber Security concentration the list of courses includes, but is not limited to, cloud computing security, secure software development, network and systems security, and applied machine learning.

Our graduates in the field of cyber security have taken positions with a wide variety of employers, both in the public and private sectors, including The MITRE Corporation, Lockheed Martin, NAI Labs, Sybase, Booz Allen Hamilton, SAIC, CSC, Price Waterhouse, Webmethods, Network Associates, Odyssey Research Associates, and Perspecta Labs.

[] How is cyber security as a field evolving to meet the needs of contemporary information systems, both nationally and globally? How does George Mason University’s Online Master of Science in Applied Information Technology equip students with the knowledge and skills to meet these ever-changing needs?

[Dr. Ioulia Rytikova] The MS AIT program was created in 2007 in response to calls from industry, government, and intelligence community professionals for a graduate-level program combining state-of-the-art practices in intelligence, forensics and cyber operations. Leading area employers provided guidance during the development of the program curriculum as summarized in Table 1 below.

National Reconnaissance OfficeAccenture
National Geospatial Intelligence AgencyBooz Allen Hamilton Inc.
U.S. ArmyCisco Systems, Inc.
U.S. NavyManTech International Corporation
U.S. Department of Homeland SecurityMicron Corporation
U.S. Air ForceScience Application International Corporation
U.S. Office of Personnel ManagementThe MITRE Corporation
Capital One Financial Corporation
Exxon Mobil
Fannie Mae
Lockheed Martin Corporation
Northrop Grumman Corporation
Bearing Point
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)
Table 1 – Employers that contributed to the design of the MS AIT curriculum

In 2016, MS AIT was substantially redesigned to address the challenges of the evolving cyber security threat landscape, and to respond to current needs in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation as a whole regarding IT jobs. Such needs were the result of the rising demand for skilled professionals capable of facing the challenges posed by today’s cyber threats of growing complexity. According to industry leaders, few IT professionals were educationally prepared to address such problems that may be cross-functional, enterprise-wide, industry-wide or even global in nature.

The IST department appointed a joint task force that included leading IST researchers and industry representatives to revise MS AIT. The task force identified missing elements in the preparation of technical professionals today and proposed curriculum changes aimed to create a comprehensive learning and developmental experience intended to build the next generation of cybersecurity experts. The revised MS AIT leverages scholarship, academic research, and industry best practices, processes, and methodologies in the leading areas of IT with heavy focus on cybersecurity. It provides a high-quality curriculum that aligns with several NSA/DHS Center for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense defined focus areas, including Secure Software Development, Secure Cloud Computing, and Security Incident Analysis and Response.

Leading area employers continue their engagement with the program as members of the Department’s Board of Advisors, which allows the IST department to continuously evaluate and improve its programs, and align them with current industry needs.

[] How do cyber security and information technology intersect with fields such as computer science, business, public policy, engineering, and public health?

[Dr. Ioulia Rytikova] In today’s interconnected world, virtually all organizations – from startups to large corporations – rely on information technology to run their operations efficiently and effectively. However, this exposes them to an array of cyber threats that could cause significant disruption, and ultimately result in extensive financial losses, as demonstrated by recent security incidents, including the ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline. Therefore, it is essential for all organizations to incorporate cyber security in their operations, so as to prevent or mitigate cyber attacks.

[] What online technologies does this program use to facilitate interactions between course faculty and students? Are classes primarily asynchronous, synchronous, or a combination of both?

[Dr. Ioulia Rytikova] In addition to providing a dynamic and mission-focused curriculum, the IST department took a leadership role in the School in the area of innovative online learning and teaching. In 2011, the IST department started offering its programs remotely. This was a significant breakthrough for the Department, for the School, and for Mason, as only one other online degree had been developed within the university at that time.

Today, the MS AIT Online program is offered fully online (asynchronously). It follows and utilizes the latest advances in the learning sciences research for distance learning education. AIT classes incorporate various in-class activities that engage, motivate, and connect students with critical aspects of their future profession. Students have a unique opportunity to immerse in a significant inquiry- and project-based, challenge-driven learning experience. The methodology used in AIT classes also supports them in building problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication competencies as well as content knowledge in a creative environment.

A typical online course is offered through the Blackboard (Bb) learning management system that offers various communication tools to help students interact with their professors. The discussion board, blogs, journals, and wikis tools are used to increase student engagement, collaboration, and exploration. Ultimately, the goal is to create not only cognitively and intellectually stimulating environment, but also an environment of emotional connection and support that promotes and increases student participation.

Professors hold online office hours weekly and meet with students on-on-one to help them stay on schedule and successfully complete the course.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in George Mason University’s Online Master of Science in Applied Information Technology? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?

[Dr. Ioulia Rytikova] The IST department creates a unique learning environment for students concentrating in cyber security. Most IST faculty who teach or coordinate cyber security courses in the programs offered by the department are affiliated with the Center for Secure Information Systems (CSIS). CSIS was established in 1990 as the first academic center in Information Security at a U.S. University, and focuses on multi-disciplinary research to solve a wide range of computer security problems.

Due to their role as educators and active researchers, these faculty bring their research experience directly into their classes, and provide IST students with up-to-date knowledge about current threats and cutting-edge solutions to face such threats.

Graduate students working on their Master’s thesis or project or Ph.D. dissertation are given opportunities to engage in active research at the center. Interested and qualified masters’ students can become involved in research projects with individual faculty members. Many advanced courses expose students to recent research advances and provide initial research training by assigning students elementary research-oriented tasks. In addition, a wide variety of research lectures are offered in departmental seminars and workshops, and students are encouraged (sometimes required) to attend (at times, an entire class may attend).

Mason provides extensive support for the professional and personal growth of students through various academic services as illustrated in the chart below.

[] For students who are interested in George Mason University’s Online Master of Science in Applied Information Technology, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Ioulia Rytikova] To be admitted to the program, applicants must have completed a baccalaureate degree from one of the Mason-recognized U.S. institutional accrediting agencies and earned a GPA of 3.00 or better in their 60 highest-level credits. They must be experienced in the fundamentals of IT and quantitative methods.

When the admissions committee reviews an applicant’s profile, it does not make its decisions based on the GPA or transcript only. The committee takes into account an applicant’s work experience, professional certifications, awards, letters of recommendation, and his/her statement of career goals to develop a comprehensive picture of an applicant. When the committee looks at the transcript, it will focus on whether an applicant has taken any technical courses or not. Though preference will be given to applicants with a solid technical background in information technology, computer science, engineering, or related disciplines, extensive working experience in relevant fields will also be taken into account.

[] What makes George Mason University’s Online Master of Science in Applied Information Technology program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? From faculty mentorship to course content, what standout aspects of the program would you like prospective students to know about?

[Dr. Ioulia Rytikova] Cyber Security students in the IST department have an opportunity to participate in one the most prestigious scholarship programs – the Department of Defense (DoD) Cyber Scholarship program. The IST department has been consistently receiving these scholarships every year for its students since 2016.

  • The Master of Science in Applied Information Technology at George Mason University is ranked as one of the top 25 online programs in the United States, according to the U.S. News & World Report’s data for 2018, 2019, and 2020.
  • The curriculum for our program was designed in accordance with guidance and feedback from leading employers in the area, who continue to be involved in program updates as well as extracurricular programming and initiatives.
  • As George Mason University is located within the heart of one of the East Coast’s most innovative and active technology hubs, students of our program have unmatched access to top innovators and leaders in the space.
  • George Mason University has excellent cooperative research programs in partnership with federal, state, and local governments. Additionally, we have private sector partnerships that can benefit students during and after their enrollment.
  • Both local and nationwide employers seek out graduates of our M.S. in Applied Information Technology program to be leaders in their organizations.
  • Our student support services are quite robust, with both online and in-person advising, social and other online resources, and career support to help students propel their careers and also stay connected with faculty and fellow students long after they graduate.

Thank you, Dr. Rytikova, for your excellent insight into George Mason University’s Master of Science in Applied Information Technology, and your advice for prospective students who are considering a career in information security!