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One Year Out: Preston Miller ’13, Master’s Candidate in Digital Forensics

Looking back on his freshman year at Vassar, Preston Miller ’13 says that half of the people on his hall that year thought they were going to be doctors, and the other half, lawyers. “By the end of first semester, half of that half, including me, realized they didn’t want to become doctors,” says Miller.  He did enjoy science, though, and he also enjoyed law enforcement.  “I had actually considered going to one of the military academies,” Miller says. “I’m the only child of a single mom, so she said the only one I was allowed to consider was the Coast Guard so that I wouldn’t be deployed overseas, and I said fair enough.”

Preston Miller ’13, a master of science candidate in digital forensics at Marshall University and the winner of a $25,000 scholarship from the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation. Watch the award ceremony on YouTube.

Miller looked at the Coast Guard Academy, but they offered only six majors, none of which particularly appealed to him. “Since we were up there looking at colleges,  I decided to look at Yale and Vassar,” he says, “and I immediately fell in love with Vassar because of how beautiful the campus is.  I just had a gut feeling about it.”

During his campus tour at Vassar, his tour guide mentioned the Campus Patrol, a student-run service that supplements the professional security force on campus. “I said I thought that must be very cool,” says Miller, “but the tour guide said it wasn’t so cool.  He said you have to walk around at night and it’s cold and you can’t get your homework done.”   Nevertheless, Miller signed on to the patrol as a first-year student and eventually became the leader of the patrol.  “I’m from Dallas, Texas, and I didn’t come prepared with a lot of winter coats.  I just thought it couldn’t be that bad.  And one night, I had third shift, which was from 11pm to 1am, and I remember I put on every piece of clothing I owned.  It was snowing; I was freezing.  When I came back in, I found out that it was something like 12 below zero! But still, it was kind of exciting.”

So: science (a concentration in biochemistry) plus law enforcement.  “Forensics naturally came to mind,” says Miller, now in his second year of grad school at Marshall University in West Virginia, pursuing a master’s in digital forensics and crime scene investigation. He already has a job lined up when he graduates with Stroz Friedberg in New York City, one of the nation’s top digital forensics firms, and he recently won a $25,000 scholarship award from the J. Edgar Hoover Scholarship Foundation.  According to the chair of the board of directors of the foundation William D. Branon, Miller is the only person in the award’s 14-year history to be chosen unanimously by the scholarship committee.  “I threw my name in the ring, but I didn’t really think I had a chance,” says Miller. “It’s very humbling.”

Miller says that he applied to Marshall because of its stellar  reputation in the field and because it was the only program that allowed for specialization in digital forensics.  “I came in thinking I was going to do traditional forensics and go the DNA route, but I also promised myself that I was going to at least look into digital forensics, and I just fell in love with it.  It’s much more up my alley—very rewarding, very interesting, very fun.”

He might not have even considered it had it not been for a course he took second semester junior year, Introduction to Computer Science with Luke Hunsberger.  “It was kind of impossible at that point to change my major, but I realized that I loved computers and that I had a natural talent for computer science, which I had never really felt with biochemistry.  I could do biochemistry, but it was difficult.  I didn’t feel like I had a natural gift for it.  I caught on much more readily to computer science.  And I realized that, for once, I didn’t mind reading the articles the professor assigned.  Before, I would be like, `Oh, man—another article to read?!’  But reading these articles was actually fun, and that was very telling to me.”

He managed to take another three computer science courses before he graduated which, he says, gave him a huge leg up when he got to Marshall.  “Since I had a background in the fundamentals, I was able to vault over a lot of the beginning stuff and get into the advanced stuff.”  The West Virginia State Police have a digital forensics lab at Marshall, and they generally allow second year graduate students to work there once they get certification on a particular tool.  Miller got that certification his first month at Marshall. “So by the second month, I was already working with the West Virginia State Police, helping them out on actual cases.” 

So what exactly is digital forensics?  “Basically, we study any digital evidence that is brought back to the lab from a crime scene,” says Miller. “Say you have a suspected drug dealer, and there’s been an arrest made, and the suspect had a cell phone on his person.  That cell phone gets sent to us, and we take a look at it and see what we can find—maybe a message that would tie that person to a drug deal that we know of from the police officers on the ground.”   But that’s really just the beginning.  Digital forensics also encompasses things like the recent JP Morgan hack.  “So we would be called in to find out where the breach occurred and how much has been lost and to describe precisely what has been compromised,” says Miller.  “Technology is always changing, and you have to keep learning. I think that’s a very exciting aspect of this field.”

And the five-year plan?  “For now, I see myself in New York City, for sure. Eventually, I think I’ll land back in Dallas.  My whole family is in Dallas. But you never know.  It’s been very formative for me to travel to all of these places where people are so different from each other and where I’ve been exposed to different ways of living and thinking.  I would like to live abroad for a couple of years.  I know it’s crazy to think about this at my age, but I would kind of like to retire somewhere where they don’t speak English.  I’ve always kind of wanted to retire in Spain.  These past two months, I’ve started learning Japanese—for no reason, really, other than that I got bored one day. I enjoy learning!”

--Julia Van Develder

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, October 21, 2014