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News | March 31, 2016

Women's History Month Feature - In the spotlight: An NSA Applied Research Mathematician Leans In

Q: What attracted you to a career in government? What attracted you to NSA?

A: Working as a mathematician at NSA was attractive because of the challenging problem-set with real-world impact, the emphasis on collaborative work, the concept that everyone is on the same team with the same goals (mission). In addition, the community aspects of the mathematics community at NSA were very appealing. As a microcosm of the external math community with internal classes, talks, peer-reviewed papers, peer and mentor networks, and opportunities for collaboration outside of your particular office, the math community appealed to my desire for a culture of support, connection and intellectual kinship in my work.

Q: What are some of your most challenging, unusual, memorable, 'fun,' or interesting professional experiences at NSA?

A: My most memorable and interesting professional experiences at NSA fall into two categories: technical collaboration and community building.

In my career as an Applied Research Mathematician, technical collaboration on hard problems has been the highlight. The process of moving from white board brainstorming to solving a problem with mission impact is such a rewarding experience. My personal strengths in identifying areas for improvement, advocating for the needed improvements and building the right team to collaboratively solve the problems at hand have guided me into leadership positions as well. My contributions have not only had an impact on highly visible world events, but also on the internal mathematics community by developing and communicating new mathematical theories and framework to position NSA for impact on future world events.

Community building has been a key component of my time in leadership of the Agency's Women in Mathematics Society, serving as president among other roles. I organized career panels, career and technical talks and roundtable discussions dedicated to the health of the internal mathematics community. I have gained the trust and ear of key senior-level community members, providing a much-needed bridge between the early-career mathematicians and those in the position to enact change. One of my favorite experiences in this arena has been hosting and participating in the roundtable with senior leadership to address the under-representation of women in senior leadership positions. We hosted senior leadership from across the Agency and ensured that participation was balanced across the career levels, leading to a lively and productive discussion of the issues.

Q: Why is it so important to encourage girls to go into STEM fields?

A: First of all, I should say that I don't believe in forcing anyone into a STEM career if it's not the right fit for the individual. However, there is a lot of evidence showing inequity in the treatment of girls and women in STEM education and careers; this treatment warrants encouragement of girls who have an aptitude for STEM and are interested in it.

With that said, let's first consider this from the health-of-STEM perspective: STEM needs women! And men! And anyone of any gender who is interested in it! On the problems I've worked at the Agency, diversity in approach, experience, knowledge and skills has proven essential to success. Bringing together a group with varied perspectives, backgrounds, experiences and abilities is necessary to attack the hardest problems. Limiting the pipeline of potential scientists and mathematicians by socializing girls out of STEM is illogical and detrimental for our overall success in these fields.

Let's consider the benefits to women: First, STEM careers are generally higher-paying, challenging, careers with good growth opportunity and relatively low stress. In addition, succeeding in a field in spite of the biases and socialization against women can provide these individual women confidence and a feeling of accomplishment. But, having more women in STEM careers isn't only beneficial to those individuals, it's also beneficial to women at large. If we increase equality in STEM, it's really hard to keep up the notion that women are unequal in other ways.

Jennifer is an Applied Research Mathematician at the National Security Agency. In addition to her technical work, she has served in multiple leadership roles in NSA's Women in Mathematics Society, most recently as president. A graduate of NSA's Applied Mathematics Program, she has worked for NSA for eight years.