News | July 9, 2015

NSA Research Supports the Next Generation of Scientists and Engineers

In May 2015, the NSA Research Directorate supported the 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) to encourage and recognize the next generation of scientists and engineers. This annual event is the world's largest high school science fair with approximately 1,700 entrants from more than 75 countries. The projects covered various topics including behavioral and social sciences, biochemistry, embedded systems, engineering mechanics, mathematics, robotics and software.

"I was highly impressed with the quality of scientific research from all of the ISEF finalists," said Dr. Adam Tagert, NSA Research employee and ISEF judge. "The projects could be seen at an academic conference with Ph.D. students. It is truly even more impressive since these students are between 14 and 18 years old," he added.

In addition to the major awards, organizations can sponsor special award prizes in 60 plus categories. Special awards can range from educational scholarships, cash awards, summer internships, scientific field trips, and grants. NSA participated for the first time in support of the agency's Science of Security (SoS) Initiative.

Three employees from the Trusted Systems Research Group—Steven Katz, Stuart Krohn, and Dr. Adam Tagert—judged NSA Research's special award selection. The award recognizes cybersecurity research with scientific rigor, clarity of presentation, and global impact. Of the 87 projects that were cybersecurity relevant, 18 were chosen for interviews with NSA award judges. The NSA Research Directorate award is the only one focused on cybersecurity contributions.

According to one of the special award judges, Adam Tagert, "A goal of the SoS Initiative is to promote scientific cybersecurity research, so we created and sponsored the NSA Research Directorate Award at ISEF. We want to recognize outstanding accomplishment and encourage more high school students to pursue cybersecurity research and careers."

Elliot Gorokhovsky, 16, of Boulder, Colorado, won the special award for his project, "A Novel Algorithm for #SAT Using the Inclusion-Exclusion Principle and Memorization." Relevant to both computer science and math problems, #SAT seeks to count how many conditions satisfy a set of Boolean functions. For example, #SAT solvers are used to verify the security properties of cryptographic algorithms. Gorokhovsky developed a novel approach to increase solving speed by caching results so that they may be reused later. He received a $3,000 monetary award.

"The aspect of the winning project that struck me the most was the results were generalizable," Tagert said. "Gorokhovsky's improved #SAT algorithm easily could be used by others who employ #SAT solvers to verify correctness. His research advanced the field of satisfiability."

Two runner-up projects each received $1,000. First, Saryau Caulfied, 17, and Alexandra Ulmer, 18, both of Portland, Oregon, were selected for their project, "Capacity Limits of Working Memory: The Impact of Multitasking on Cognitive Control in Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants." This project looked at the difference among three groups: kids of different ages who regularly use multi-media; kids who do not actively use multi-media; and adults to determine the effects of processing multiple streams of information on performing auditory, visual, and cognitive tasks. The project highlights the possible effects of a world of increasing media saturation.

The other runner-up was Cherry Ying Zou, 16, of Poolesville, Maryland, for her project, "Development of an Authorship Identification Algorithm for Twitter Using Stylometric Techniques." The project seeks to solve the hard problem of identifying authors on the social media network with character level analysis by testing celebrity accounts. This work is especially critical in the current environment of online bullying.

Tagert stated, "It was exciting to hear students talk about their research and it was unexpected when students leveraged NSA-produced or -sponsored technologies that are now public and free to use. For example, I never expected multiple high school students would find and use Cryptol for a science fair. Cryptol is a language used to specify cryptographic functions that was supported by NSA's Trusted Systems Research Group."

The NSA Research Directorate brings the power of science to secure the future by creating breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These discoveries help provide tools and technologies used globally to safeguard cyberspace. NSA wants to ensure freedom and trust of the Internet for its future viability.

"These winning science fair projects are closely aligned to the needs of the cybersecurity community," expressed Tagert. "The NSA Science of Security Initiative funds researchers at top universities in the same problem fields. Advances in these fields are critically needed to mature cybersecurity from an art-form based on experience to a scientific field."