The Personal Side of the Partnership with UH Mānoa
NSA’s partnership with UH Mānoa began a dozen years ago with a collaboration to educate linguists in Chinese and has since grown to include Korean and now research in the cyber field. The profiles below tell a deeper story of the partnership.
Mark Nelson – Ph.D. Student and Professor of Cybersecurity
Mark Nelson found his life’s passion as a child. His father worked for Hewlett Packard and when he traveled for business, Nelson was left in the care of his father’s colleagues – “crazy-smart engineers,” Nelson explained.
“They were the people I imprinted on,” he said. “When I graduated high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do – be a computer engineer.”
Nelson started at Chico State University but quickly ran out of money and enlisted in the Navy Reserve. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree, took a job at Hewlett Packard, and moved to Hawai`i to be closer to his customers. After 13 years, he was laid off when the PC market collapsed. This was a turning point in his life, he said.
“The whole time I worked for Hewlett Packard, I was troubled by the thought that I should be doing something greater than myself – not just making widgets cheaper and faster,” he said. “When I lost my job, I decided ‘I am not done yet.’”
He resolved to reinvent himself to “be the best cybersecurity person I can be,” he said, and he set three goals for himself. First, to join the federal cybersecurity workforce – particularly NSA which he called “the best cybersecurity outfit on the planet.” Second, to earn a Ph.D. in cyber. Third, to re-enlist in the Navy Reserve after a 22-year hiatus since “cyber is not only a social and economic domain but a contested battlespace.”
While pursuing a master’s in computer science at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, he was offered an NSA Cyber Operations summer internship and found it to be an “amazing experience” – so much so that he asked to return for a second summer. “At the university we are always chasing grades. I lost sight of the joy of learning, but at the internship I reconnected with that joy,” he said.
In his capstone project, he had the opportunity to do hands-on work in real mission areas, which he found extremely compelling
“The things we do [at NSA] are unique and cannot be done anywhere else,” he said. “We have a direct impact on the cybersecurity of the United States and our allies and we provide exquisite intelligence for our national leaders.”
Nelson was recruited by Dr. Robert Runser, the Technical Director for NSA in Hawai`i at the time, to join NSA as the visiting professor for UH Mānoa. He works in the College of Engineering teaching classes, helping with curriculum development, and creating new courses with the goal of helping students graduate, get a great job, and meet the urgent cybersecurity needs of the Agency and the Nation. He is also working on a doctorate in computer science and is a magician on the side.
Nelson spends classroom time teaching students what he wished he’d learned when he was starting out.
“This is both art and science. My job is to teach them the tools and give them the confidence to get in the game for themselves.” He tells students, “Good programming is not about programming computers well, it’s about helping people,” and he leaves them with a thought inspired by Steve Jobs: “In order to do your best work, you need to love what you do. Don’t settle. You’ll know it when you see it.”
Aley Auna – Hawaiian Native Recruiting from Home and Beyond
Aley Auna had never heard of NSA until after September 11 when he came back from a church service mission. He was a freshman in college at Brigham Young University-Hawai`i and NSA was heavily recruiting.
“I was walking through a hiring event and a recruiter stopped me and told me about NSA,” said the native of Hawai`i. “I thought it sounded interesting.”
A few years later following another career fair, a recruiter contacted Auna and told him NSA was looking for recruiters and he fit the mold. He turned down the opportunity because he had already enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, but she told him she would keep in touch. Much to his surprise, she did.
“Two years later, I was trying to get a federal job. I’d applied to the CIA, NGA, and the Department of State, and then she contacted me,” he said. “I always thank her for that personal touch. It made the difference.”
Auna liked the idea of working at NSA because he wanted to work for an agency where he could make a difference. He also liked the fact that there was a base near home. After three years in Maryland and three more in Washington State, Auna returned home to work in recruitment at NSA in Hawai`i.
“I wanted to show that I was an island kid who made it – so others could, too,” he explained. “It helps being a native of Hawai`i; others can see that there are people like them in the Agency – it helps them see themselves here.”
Auna has enjoyed his work at the Agency and is currently stationed overseas, working in management within human resources.
“Whoever thought that a local like myself would be able to travel and meet so many people with a diversity of thought,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed living in so many places and seeing the mission from that perspective. You get a different point of view.”
Auna is pleased to see NSA is partnering with academia.
“It’s critical for the state and for the community to see NSA in a good light,” he said. “To see what we are doing on behalf of the security of the nation – and the students can be part of it.”
Students in Hawai`i should definitely look into NSA for a career, he said. It’s a place where diversity of thought is encouraged, learning opportunities are plentiful, and the mission is like none other.
Lewis – East Asian Academic turned Language Analyst
Lewis’s career path was sealed on a trip to Epcot in the fourth grade.
“A 360-degree panorama tour took you through Chinese geography, and there was something about the imagery and storytelling that caught my imagination,” he said. “I wanted to know more and more, and that started what became my career in East Asian studies.”
Now a senior advisor in NSA’s Office of East Asia & the Pacific, Lewis graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois with a bachelor’s in Asian studies in the mid-1990s. He traveled and worked on the west coast before heading to the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa to earn a master’s degree. While studying daily on Kailua Beach, he contemplated spending the rest of his life in Hawai`i teaching Chinese literature. Then an NSA recruiter approached him.
“I had never heard of NSA or of national security. My emphasis was on Chinese poetry,” he explained. “I was a little surprised when NSA offered me a job as a language analyst.”
On a full scholarship at the time, Lewis asked NSA to wait until he finished his doctoral program, but then circumstances changed and he took the job. He came to Maryland in 2005 and spent two years in the Language Analysis Development program, learning about different areas of NSA. He has since had a number of different jobs within the Agency.
“I’ve taught, researched, written reports, collected data for analysis, worked at other intelligence agencies, and traveled internationally,” he said. “This is definitely the right career for me. Very few careers give you an amazing sense of meaning and mission. … I love it here. I will never leave the Agency.”
Lewis’ favorite job at NSA was that of team chief – where he worked with a group to analyze data and create a story to help others understand it. “I loved working with a team, pulling together when we didn’t understand something, and directly responding to information on really important topics.”
His current position is much like being in graduate school except now he’s paid to try and answer questions comprehensively – for policy makers and others in national security.
“Every day is different,” he said. “I still use my Chinese weekly, but not as much in this job role.”
He does, however, use his expertise in East Asian studies on a daily basis and appreciates the deep understanding he gained while studying at UH Mānoa. With the current national security directive focused on China and North Korea, those with his skillset are in the perfect place.
“It’s a strategic time to invest in Asian language, culture, and history,” he said. “Our national security will increasingly depend on our ability to understand the culture and people of East Asia.”
Lewis encourages other graduate students and even those in academia to consider coming to NSA where those who love to learn have “endless possibilities,” he said.
While at NSA, he’s pursued a second master’s degree in strategic intelligence and a doctorate in liberal studies from Georgetown University. He teaches at the National Intelligence University and has written a book.
“You can still follow your intellectual passions in the government,” he said. “Take the chance. For me it’s been worth the risk.”
Jason Leigh – Making Science Fiction a Reality
When you walk into Dr. Jason Leigh’s Laboratory for Advanced Visualization & Applications (LAVA) at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, you leave your shoes at the door and step into a room filled with cutting edge technology.
On one side stands a virtual reality cyber environment – created by students – that allows visitors to explore places like the International Space Station or a coral reef off the coast of the Big Island (recently destroyed by lava). On the other side of the dimly lit lab is a giant digital canvas that spans an entire wall and enables real-time analytic exchange of ideas.
“As a geek, all you want to do is live in that Star Trek universe – to try to take that and make it real,” explains Leigh, a professor at UH Manoa and the director of LAVA and the Hawai`i Data Science Institute. “That is what LAVA is doing – bringing into reality what those in science fiction envisioned.”
Leigh came to UH Mānoa in 2014 from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and modeled the LAVA after a similar lab there. One of the reasons he moved to Hawai`i (other than a love of the islands) was the opportunity to work with a broader range of agencies such as the Department of Defense, NSA, the Navy, and the Army.
There are really amazing researchers at NSA,” Leigh said. “They build amazing tools and take it to a whole new level.”
NSA began engaging with Leigh and LAVA in 2016, explained Robert Runser, former Technical Director of NSA Hawai`i. After several brainstorming sessions, the two organizations began working on a topic modeling project that will ultimately help language analysts at NSA and researchers in academia synthesize large amounts of data and apply visualization to understand the results.
One of Leigh’s doctoral students is working on the project – augmenting humans with artificial intelligence by teaching computers how to seek out data, analyze, and organize it. He is also validating the results to ensure it’s trustworthy. NSA is sponsoring the project in addition to sharing algorithms and expertise.
“It’s exciting. We love inventing new things,” Leigh said. “We wouldn’t have discovered this without the engagement [with NSA].”
Runser is also thrilled with the collaboration.
“At NSA we under utilize our big display walls,” he said. “In LAVA, we are partnering to unlock the potential of having humans interface with data directly in real time”
Leigh starts recruiting students right out of their first computer classes if they are “strong in the force,” he explained. Funding for much of the lab’s infrastructure comes from grants from the National Science Foundation, and technology developed in the lab is used by hundreds of research organizations around the world, he said.
Because salaries in Hawai`i are notoriously low and few technical experts are willing to relocate to the islands, the best way to build talent is to grow it from within, Leigh said. Working with the federal government is also a plus, because students can intern and eventually find employment there. But having worked with some of the most advanced technology available in LAVA, students will be expecting as much when they enter the workforce, he warned.
On the LAVA’s giant screen, ideas on digital sticky notes are thrown up by students – crazy ideas they have already started working on. Leigh often refers to science fiction movies to help generate ideas.
“They walk into the Holodeck in Star Trek and now, everyone wants to do that,” he said. “We are getting closer and closer.”
Kelli Shibao – Immigrant Settling into New Job at NSA
Every day that she drives into work at NSA in Hawai`i, Kelli Shibao wants to pinch herself. She joined the Agency in April after a long stint getting an undergraduate and a master’s degree from the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa while working full time in sales.
She loved her job at AT&T and thought she would spend her career there, but a reorganization left her unemployed after 15 years.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had two degrees and no job,” she said. She found work but missed doing something fulfilling. “I prayed a lot,” Shibao said.
Then, Shibao’s sister sent her a link to a job opportunity at NSA.
“I kept reading over the job description and wondered why NSA needed someone who had similar skills to mine,” said Shibao, who completed a double major in English and speech (now communicology), and received a master’s degree in English. “I applied hoping, but thinking I probably wouldn’t make the cut.”
Much to her surprise, she did.
Shibao currently works in Academic Engagement at the university level creating awareness and building relationships with colleges and their students to let them know of the many career opportunities available at NSA. The job means a great deal to Shibao, who immigrated to Hawai`i from South Korea with her family when she was 10-months old.
“While I grew up speaking Korean at home, I’ve always identified myself as being American. I’ve always known this status is an honor and privilege that many envy,” she said. “My parents chased the one and only American Dream – no other country offers such a thing.”
Shibao’s family is extremely proud that she is working for the U.S. government. Her husband would “shout it out from the mountaintops if he could,” she said. Her dad, while ecstatic for her, was initially confused when he saw her wearing business attire. “He had a misperception of what NSA does and thought I’d be wearing tactical gear and sporting a gun,” Shibao laughed.
While she loved her job at AT&T, Shibao loves the atmosphere at NSA even more.
“I admit that I’ve cried happy tears often at my desk … because of the awesome culture at NSA and the way it really strives to include everyone by recognizing diversity,” she said. “Everyone I’ve crossed paths with is so engaged and professional. … I love knowing that we are all here to do good for our country and people.”
For students thinking about a career at the Agency, Shibao says they should always believe in themselves and never take their abilities for granted. “This will keep you grounded and keep your integrity intact,” she said.
Astrid Tomsic – Cyber Expert on the Island
On a 10-day vacation in Hawai`i from her native Australia, Astrid Tomsic fell in love with a Navy sailor. She eventually moved to Oahu, got married, and 19 years later she’s working in cybersecurity for NSA in Hawai`i.
Growing up in Sydney, Tomsic had hopes of becoming a marine biologist but her father convinced her computers were the way to go.
“He was very much into computers and told me every single job at some point will touch computers,” she said. “He said once I had a job, I could go scuba diving with dolphins.”
So Tomsic followed her father’s advice and attended the University of Technology Sydney, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science. After moving to Hawai`i, Tomsic got a master’s degree in information and computer science from the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa.
While there weren’t many other options, “UH Mānoa had a good cybersecurity program,” she said.
Tomsic had never heard of NSA but while completing her degree, she was stopped at a career fair by Aley Auna, a recruiter from the Agency who told her she should apply.
“I thought it was a good option here on the island,” she said. “There aren’t many places that pay well locally for technical skills.”
Though she hoped for a position in Hawai`i, Tomsic ended up being offered a job as a software developer at NSA in Maryland. She spent two years there where she gained a better understanding of NSA’s mission, she said.
Eventually, a position opened in Hawai’i and her family jumped at the chance to move back. She’s been in Hawai`I for seven years and is currently a manager in cybersecurity.
“I am very grateful for NSA. I have enjoyed the Ohana,” she said, referring to the Hawai’ian word for family and how it relates to her relationship with colleagues. “I haven’t found that anywhere else.”
In her nine years working at NSA, Tomsic finds it inspiring the way “people come together to solve mission problems,” she said. “There is always something new to learn, and I am always amazed at the breadth of the mission.”
Tomsic urges current students from UH Mānoa to seriously consider a job at the Agency.
“NSA has so many opportunities, including leadership training that can be applied to a list of fields.” She said. “There are travel opportunities that allow you to live in different areas but still contribute to protecting the country.”
Tomsic feels that her computer science degree gave her a good understanding of the breadth of technical skills which has helped her make the most of every opportunity at NSA, she said.
“There aren’t many jobs where you can say you play a part in keeping America safe,” she said. “That is part of the motivation for me.”
Down the road, she hopes to take advantage of the travel opportunities offered at NSA and perhaps live abroad.
In the meantime, however, she’s enjoying life on the island where she gets the chance to satisfy her old passion for marine biology – scuba diving and even swimming with dolphins.
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To apply for a student program or full-time job at NSA, please visit www.intelligencecareers.gov
For more information about programs at UH Mānoa, visit the UH Mānoa website.