For the second consecutive year, the NSA Research Directorate sponsored a special award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The ISEF is the world's largest high school science fair with approximately 1,700 young scientists, 22 categories, 600 awarded finalists, 75 countries represented and $4 million worth of prizes.
Of approximately 100 projects that were cybersecurity relevant, 24 were chosen for interviews with NSA award judges. The Research Directorate-sponsored awards were judged on their demonstrated advancement in the science to secure and safeguard cyberspace. Winners received a $3,000 first prize award and two $1,000 runner-up prizes. The awards are funded by the agency's Science of Security initiative.
In addition to the monetary prizes, NSA awarded the winners with a two-day visit to NSA headquarters. During their visit, the awardees presented their work to NSA researchers, received overviews of the agency's mission and toured various operations centers and the National Cryptologic Museum.
Dr. Adam Tagert, Technical Director of the Science of Security initiative, described NSA's motivation for sponsorship at Intel ISEF, "By creating a special award at ISEF recognizing scientific cybersecurity research, we hoped to create an incentive for students to contribute to this important field and inspire continued pursuit of cyber education. All three winning students did a great job on their research. Their projects advance the cybersecurity field and I hope they continue following these interests and do great things."
Charles Noyes, 17, of Villa Park, California, won the special award for his project, "Efficient Blockchain-Driven Multiparty Computation Markets at Scale." His project addressed a long-standing search within the intersecting fields of computer science, cryptography and game theory for faster, more efficient secure multiparty computation (sMPC). He developed a novel scheme that combines blockchains, data structures that serve as the backbone for secure banking applications such as Bitcoin, with homomorphic computations, which allow computations on encrypted data such as search, and with verification schemes, which guarantee authenticity. Regarding his visit to NSA, Noyes remarked, "It has been fantastic. Throughout the entire visit, I was surprised by the things being done at the agency. I thought it was exclusively digital defense, but I didn't realize there was 3-D printing or carpentry."
Karthik Yegnesh, 16, of Eagleville, Pennsylvania, received a runner-up award for his project, "Cosheaf Theoretical Constructions in Networks and Persistent Homology." He applied persistent homology, an algebraic method for measuring the topological feature of shapes and functions, to analyze the data flow in financial, social and biological networks. Since August 2015, Yegnesh has been working on his project, which could facilitate smooth transmission of data. After touring the agency and meeting employees, he admitted that he didn't know much about NSA, "I was so impressed by the goals of the organization. And how human it was. Regular people work here with regular desks."
Rucha Joshi, 16, of Austin, Texas, also received a runner-up award for her project, "Determining Network Robustness Using Region Based Connectivity." Joshi developed a method to test a network's resilience using region-based connectivity rather than the traditional node and edge connectivity. Typically, in real world scenarios, a node failure is due to a regional issue, such as natural or man-made disasters, and not just a single point. She was inspired by her aunt's 20-hour drive from Houston to Austin before Hurricane Katrina, "I wanted to find alternate paths so something like that doesn't happen again." Joshi has been entering science fairs for years, but only knew about NSA from what she learned in school. "I was excited to learn that I won the award from NSA. It has been a great two days," she said.
Dr. Deborah Frincke, NSA Director of Research, greeted each of the winners and presented them with a Director of Research coin as a small token of appreciation. "You represent the future and you will go far. Thank you for sharing your work with us. It was a pleasure to hear about your research and you are skilled at presenting. I am amazed at how rigorous and well-researched your work was. And hopefully, you can see a little of how we solve complex problems here at the agency."
In addition to ISEF's major awards, organizations such as NSA can sponsor special award prizes in more than 60 categories. Special awards range from educational scholarships, cash awards and summer internships to scientific field trips and grants. NSA's participation is part of an effort to encourage more high school students to pursue cybersecurity education, research and careers.