From tomatoes to technology, this MSU engineer's path began in her hometown of Crystal Springs, a quaint community that earned the nickname "Tomatopolis of the World," thanks to its annual festival and rich farming heritage.
During Melissa Hannis' adolescent years, the Center for Cyber Innovation researcher helped her parents tend the greenhouses where they planted, packed and sold tomatoes. She loved the small-town, protective atmosphere where she learned the value of hard work and honesty, as well as the importance of building lifelong relationships. Since she built a reputation as a bright girl with a promising future, most would never have dreamed she would encounter educational roadblocks.
"All I needed was the extra time to read and absorb the information taught in class, and I needed the extra reading time when I took the exams," Hannis explained. "The students who were adept to the teaching methods were able to keep the pace. For those of us with a different learning style, the curriculum and test schedules didn't allow extra time to grasp the material."
Hannis remembers enduring the humiliation of the teachers splitting the classes into two student sections—one group included the "gifted" and the other group the "challenged." She often felt frustrated and embarrassed because she regularly had to skip recess because she was behind in her studies, so she was relieved when her mother made arrangements to home-school her.
"My mom was working as a graphic artist, and she had her own personal computer," Hannis said. "She is the one that introduced me to the world of computers, and I was fascinated by them. On the occasion that my mom would let me play video games with my friends, the 3-D graphics, animation and technology impressed me."
During the five years that Hannis was home-schooled, she learned how to teach and push herself to learn more than was required for each subject. Her drive to complete extra work was her way to overcome self-doubt and self-consciousness about her ability to learn. She wanted to go to college, but she thought that was an unattainable dream.
Photo by Megan Bean
"When I returned to high school in the ninth grade, I really didn't want to go because I thought I would embarrass myself and fail,"' Hannis said. "I ended up graduating as the valedictorian of my class."
She went to Hinds Community College and transferred to MSU with a Phi Theta Kappa Scholarship, studying computer engineering.
"I really didn't think I could do it, so when I got that letter of acceptance from MSU, I thought, 'Wow, I'm doing things and going places,"' Hannis said. "From the first day I arrived on campus, MSU never saw my disability; they saw my potential."
As an undergraduate, Hannis' professors recognized her talent and invited her to work on a cybersecurity research project. That experience, along with her experience of working on several projects at MSU's Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, helped Hannis earn a scholarship as a graduate student. In 2018 she earned her master's degree, and the Center for Cyber Innovation hired her full-time. Two years later, she was promoted to a research engineer II position.
"Mississippi State set me up for success by inviting me to work on research projects as an undergraduate. I rebuilt my confidence when I was asked to teach students about computers and cybersecurity. That is when I really started believing in myself."
Today, Hannis researches and writes code to help develop some of the most complicated cybersecurity protection and defense systems. She also educates government, private industry and educational sectors throughout the Southeast about the importance of making sure their information technology and network systems are cyber resilient.
"From where I came from, I'm very grateful. I'm doing what I always wanted to do. MSU believed in me, and I am living my dream right now," Hannis said.
Hannis plans to start working on a Ph.D. in the fall. She eventually wants to become a professor.