Featured School Series; Showcasing NSA's Academic Partnerships

National Security Agency (NSA) and
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)

Partnering for more than 20 years to develop the talent and tools needed to meet national security challenges.

CMU is one of only 11 schools in the country designated as a Center of Academic Excellence (CAE) in all three distinctions–Cyber Operations, Cyber Defense, and Research.

80+CMU graduates work at NSA

Top majors:

  • Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Information Security
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Statistics

Degree types:

  • Master’s (52%)
  • Bachelor’s (32%)
  • Doctorate (16%)

NSA has awarded CMU 12 grants for scholarships and research totaling $2.1 million in the last five years.

CMU is one of 6 schools to host an NSA Science of Security Lablet.

Over the past 5 years, NSA has assigned 3 fulltime liaisons to work at CMU.

CMU is one of 16 hiring & recruitment Campus Ambassador Program (CAP) schools across the country.

The Personal Side of Partnership with CMU

NSA and CMU have been collaborating on cybersecurity research for more than 20 years. Read on to learn about CMU graduates doing cool things at NSA and one CMU program director working to ensure a diverse STEM pipeline. 

Adam Tagert – Researcher Draws Students in to Cybersecurity Mission

Adam TagertAt the age of 3, Adam Tagert remembers playing with a computer-aided design system while his mother worked. By age 5, he was writing computer programs, and in fifth grade, he built his own computer.

“It was amazing I didn’t blow it up,” said Tagert, a technical lead in NSA’s Research directorate. “That didn’t happen until college – actually twice in college.”

Tagert’s parents were both in technical fields. His dad developed programs for mainframes to digitize business processes, and his mom, working for an early semiconductor company, helped develop the digital alarm clock, digital pace maker, as well as the game “Simon.” 

“Computers were just always there, and I was always really interested,” Tagert explained. “The opportunities continued to grow, and I was good at it.”

Tagert studied computer science at Princeton University and then went on to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) for his doctorate. He chose CMU because it had a unique program balancing technical expertise with public policy. The program allowed him to explore technical engineering and how it fits with societal needs. His dissertation was on national cybersecurity strategies for small developing nations.

NSA was the logical next step for him, since he wanted to research cybersecurity. “NSA is the expert in information security,” he said. “It was an opportunity to work for the best organization out there.”

It just so happened that his first job at the Agency fit exactly in line with his doctoral studies. He was assigned to a group tasked with analyzing the Department of Defense’s cybersecurity portfolio and developing strategies for what to fund and how to allocate the funds.

“It was a challenging job to balance the technical and financial,” he said. “I thought it would take me longer to rise into a position where leaders at the Pentagon wanted to hear my analysis.”

Tagert continued in that role for three years before moving into NSA Research and becoming the technical lead for the Science of Security (SoS) program – which ensures that activities in cybersecurity can be backed by scientific knowledge. Currently, he oversees the 28 research projects underway at six universities that have NSA sponsored SoS Lablets – including CMU. He also leads the Annual Best Scientific Cybersecurity Paper Competition run by NSA.

“As a community there is a need to highlight outstanding scientific work,” he said. “In the cyber world there is a lot out there on vulnerabilities, so we try to create attention on scientific excellence more than just the flashy new hack.”

Tagert’s favorite role at NSA, however, is being a lead judge for NSA at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). He established NSA special awards and has convinced other groups within NSA to get involved.

“We are encouraging students to do mission relevant research even though they are only 14 or 15,” he said. “We are the only organization out there encouraging cybersecurity research at ISEF.”

Attending ISEF makes for long days but is extremely rewarding, Tagert said.

“It’s really inspiring to work with these super high achieving students,” he said, and it also provides a chance to talk to teachers about the best way to teach cybersecurity.

Although he probably could have made more money working at a dot com, Tagert says he has never regretted his decision to come to NSA eight years ago.

“As a researcher, NSA is a great place. There is more freedom to be able to research than I expected,” he said. “I feel like I have a meaningful job, and I am making a difference. I am empowered to work on projects I feel passionate about.”

Adrienne White – From NASA Intern to NSA Cybersecurity Leader

Adrienne WhiteWhen an NSA recruiter first approached Adrienne White during her senior year of college, she told them she wasn’t interested. She didn’t even know what NSA was. Eleven years later, she’s worked in everything from cybersecurity, to counterterrorism, to business management at the Agency and loves it.

“The impact we have on the Nation is unimaginable,” she said. “Sometimes we have to take a step back and recognize the effect we have.”

White attended Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts women’s college in Atlanta, on a full scholarship – half from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A math major, she spent every summer interning at NASA.

“My first summer at NASA, I inventoried rocket engine components and witnessed rocket engine tests every day. That was cool! The following summers, I worked at the help desk, and I liked being able to help people get back on the network,” she said. “My experience at NASA influenced me to minor in computer science, which piqued my interest in computer networking.”

During her last internship at NASA, her team lead asked her what was next. She confidently replied that she was headed to NSA.

“I was ready for something different,” she said. “Without having much information, I believed by faith that NSA would have that.”

Before applying to NSA, however, she wanted to continue her education. She saw a poster at Spelman advertising Carnegie Mellon University’s Information Networking Institute.

“I knew nothing about Carnegie Mellon, but based on that poster in the hallway, I was intrigued and curious,” she said. “I thought if there were an entire school for networking, it was for me.”

While working toward her master’s degree in Information Security Technology and Management at CMU, she applied for an internship at NSA, having no idea just how hard it might be to secure a position. To her surprise, she got the job. She spent the summer in a cybersecurity internship program and liked it so much she decided to go into a cybersecurity development program. Over the next four years, she rotated through several cybersecurity offices. Counterterrorism was one of her favorites.

“Working that mission got my adrenaline pumping every day,” she said. She also enjoyed working in risk analysis. “I love digging deep into data, finding nuggets of information, and telling a story.”

White is currently on a two-year assignment with United States Cyber Command – the unified military command responsible for directing and coordinating all cyberspace operations across the Department of Defense. Wanting to learn more about business management, she is now working as a program manager.

“I felt I needed to do this to be able to make greater contributions to the NSA mission,” she said. “I hope to return to the technical mission soon. I love analysis, I love data and digging in, but I also love leading people.”

White affirms that opportunities are endless at NSA. Outside of her regular job, she’s led the Agency’s African-American Employee Resource Group. She is passionate about increasing diversity in STEM fields and is also a part of a resource group for women at NSA.

A native of Louisiana, she said she has experienced her fair share of racism. Her grandparents were both involved in the civil rights movement. Her grandfather was an activist and was the first African American to work in the computer center at their local paper mill. Her grandmother was the first African American faculty member and full professor at Louisiana Tech University.

“I’ve gone through enough marginalization in my life that I don’t roll over easily,” she said. “I’m not afraid to speak up.”

White feels that both CMU and NSA are making progress on the front of minorities and women in STEM – but there’s always room for improvement.

“We have made lots of progress, but we have to do more,” she said.

The summer before coming to NSA, White traveled to Ghana to participate in the CMU program called “Technology Consulting in the Global Community.”

Reflecting on her time in Ghana, she said, “It changed me for the better. It expanded my view of world cultures and made me appreciate differences even more. It made me want to stay and do more. Even today, I continue to seek ways to help and promote capacity building.”

White encourages students interested in STEM fields to make sure they focus on the basics.

“Don’t undervalue the fundamentals,” she said. “Get that coding done, spend time in the lab, but also finish your writing assignments – writing well is important! Be inquisitive, study hard, and find balance. We will need people like you to enter our workforce in the future.”  

Paul Pasquale – Scholarship for Service Graduate Making an Impact at NSA

Paul PasqualePaul Pasquale has had a lifelong interest in technology. As a child, he was constantly scolded for trying to plug in his cobbled together “inventions” of spare wires and electronic components. Then 9/11 happened. He was a teenager living in the suburbs of New York City and the event, along with his technical passion, precipitated his interest in cybersecurity and eventually led him to NSA.

“I very much wanted to be part of a national mission and to give back,” he explained. “There’s a unique mission at NSA. If you want to have a huge impact in cybersecurity, NSA is the place to be.”

Pasquale’s interest in computers – building and coding – led him to The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York for undergrad, which was free to all accepted at the time. It was there that he learned the other side of the equation – how to exploit systems, he said.

“I started looking into how to test the limits of a system, finding its shortcomings, and using the results to improve its security and reliability,” he said. “Once I took Cooper Union’s Intro to Computer Security and learned the basics, I was hooked.”

Pasquale wasn’t set on getting a master’s degree, but then someone from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) came to campus, and he learned about the National Science Foundation’s Scholarship for Service (SFS) program. SFS offered him full tuition and provided a stipend for living expenses. It also helped that his girlfriend at the time (now his wife) lived in Pittsburgh.

At CMU, Pasquale studied information security policy and management, taking classes in both business management and deep technology. As part of the scholarship, he spent a summer interning at MITRE, a federally funded research and development center supporting government agencies. He then had to choose a government agency to fulfill a two-year federal employment obligation.

At an SFS job fair, he ran into a CMU alum who took him to the NSA booth where he was given two conditional jobs offers. A couple of friends who had interned at NSA convinced him to pursue the offers.

 “They said they had a great experience,” he said. “They told me I would see things at NSA – capabilities that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet.”

Since arriving at NSA in the summer of 2009, Pasquale has worked in three of the major mission areas.

“There are so many things you can do with this skillset,” he said. “I’ve taken advantage of that.”

He started in an information assurance policy office with two fellow CMU graduates, and while the job could have been dry, it wasn’t at all, he said.

“We went in with a ton of ideas, and management was willing to listen,” he said. “We were able to leverage our background as policy people who could also go deep. We talked to people in the trenches who could tell us what their issues were and we could understand and help with policy. … I think it was good for the Agency and good for our sanity.”

After more than three years in that position, Pasquale went into management in computer network operations. He is now working in Capabilities in software engineering development, overseeing a group that builds platforms, tools, and systems to underpin technology for the mission.

“We are pushing the envelope to make sure we have the same capabilities or better than the outside,” he said.

Working at NSA has been exciting, according to Pasquale.

“I don’t know if we’ve saved the world, but there were multiple things I’ve been directly involved with that have been headlines in the news,” he said. “A lot of the work I’ve done has supported really important actions. … It’s been really fun. I feel like I am having a huge impact.”

Pasquale heads back to CMU often to help recruit students as well as to look into the research being conducted on campus.

“I love talking to students. Anything I can do to help them is fulfilling,” he said. “CMU also has a ton going on, and it’s exciting to see what they are working on that I might be able to bring back here.” 

Dena Haritos Tsamitis – Building a Diverse Pipeline for Government and Industry

Dena Haritos Tsamitis

As Director of Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Information Networking Institute (INI), Dena Haritos Tsamitis has a long list of accolades and accomplishments, but it’s the community she’s built and the connections she’s made that clearly bring her the most joy.

“I feel very privileged to be in this role,” Haritos Tsamitis said. “I mentor students and often maintain a close connection with them … It’s just as important to me to have these connections as it is to them.”

Before a recent conference of the Executive Women’s Forum (EWF) on Information Security, Management & Privacy, Haritos Tsamitis remembers talking with several women she had mentored – including NSA’s Adrienne White – and feeling that deep connection. 

“We were just women talking about our challenges and looking back on things that empowered us,” she said. “Yes, I do my job … but I get to do this too. It’s what inspires me.”

Haritos Tsamitis has been at CMU since 2000 and the director of the INI since 2004. She led the university’s efforts in attaining the National Centers for Academic Excellence (CAE) designation in Cyber Operations, Cyber Defense, and Research – all sponsored in part by NSA.

“These designations were just a matter of getting the stamp of approval that our program aligns with what the government needs,” she said. “It is important that our work be relevant – what is needed by the government as well as private industry. We want our students to be relevant to the field and be contributors when they come out.” 

Since 2001, Haritos Tsamitis has also strongly supported scholarship programs that increase and strengthen the number of cybersecurity professionals that protect the nation. Under her guidance, CMU has had 219 National Science Foundation CyberCorps Scholarship for Service (SFS) students with 12 currently at the school. These students graduate with a requirement to serve the federal government, and 49 from CMU have gone on to NSA, she said.

“Many SFS students have gone down that path initially for the free education but now, more aspire to serve the Nation,” Haritos Tsamitis said.

Firmly committed to increasing women and minorities not only in her program but also in the technology workforce in general, Haritos Tsamitis led a capacity building program at CMU several years ago. More than 90 educators from 49 minority serving institutions attended an intensive summer program at CMU to build a curriculum to take back to their institutions. Many of the students from those universities have gone on to attend CMU’s INI, she said.

“I am very much committed to diversity and a welcoming environment at the INI,” she said. “In a culture dominated by male students, we now have almost a 50-50 ratio.”

Initially an English literature major herself, Haritos Tsamitis dropped out of college – forgoing a full scholarship – to get married and move to Greece. Eventually, she came back and completed her degree in information science while raising two small children and working. After the birth of her third child, she went on parental leave from an intense job, and soon after, stumbled on an advertisement for a position at CMU. She didn’t apply at first, but came across the advertisement again a month later and ended up landing the job as a consultant to integrate technology across the system. While working at CMU, Haritos Tsamitis continued her education and obtained her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. The rest is history.

“I took a unique path. I had a chip on my shoulder because I was different than every other academic, but my differences equal my strengths,” she said. “And I hope now to get students – especially students of color – to use their differences as their strengths.”

Michelle Dunn - Setting the stage for Data Science at NSA

Throughout an off-and-on career at the National Security Agency (NSA), Michelle Dunn has spent the in-between time raising her twins, travelling, starting her own company, delving into a career in the biomedical sciences, and completing a master’s degree and doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

“I haven’t had the typical NSA career,” said Dunn, who is currently a senior technical lead in research and data science at NSA. “I started here in college, but spent the bulk of my professional career in biomedical sciences.”
Through the Stokes Educational Scholarship Program, Dunn received full tuition to attend college with a summer internships at NSA. She went to Harvard University where she majored in applied mathematics and had a service obligation to work at NSA after graduation. She began her career as a mathematician but was eager to further her education.

“I knew I wanted my master’s but I wasn’t sure where,” she explained. She ended up choosing CMU because they had a statistics program that appealed to her. 

Dunn took a year off from working at NSA to complete her master’s degree. When she returned to NSA, she joined a three year development program in cryptology which allowed her to rotate through different organizations to get a broad understanding of NSA’s mission. Dunn spent another year at the Agency before leaving to pursue her doctorate at CMU in statistics.

Dunn completed her doctorate in four years and gave birth to twins. During that time she also battled a cancer diagnosis, and when all was said and done, she wasn’t sure she was ready to go back to working outside of the home. There was one thing, however, that tempted her.

“The only way I would go back to work, was if I knew I could help with cancer research in some way,” she said. She secured a job with the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the National Cancer Institute (NCI). With her extensive background in statistics, Dunn was working on funding various cancer research projects.

In the late 2000s, when the data science field was emerging, Dunn found herself in discussions at the national level.

"We were trying to figure out if data science and big data mattered, and if so, why do we care," Dunn said. As data science gained more traction, Dunn was invited to help build a data science office at NIH and develop a data science workforce.

Dunn then left her position at NIH and started her own company which aims to help researchers find funding opportunities using data science. She was eventually recruited to come back to NSA, and while her company is still in business, her partners are doing the majority of the day-to-day work.

"I get to do a lot of strategic planning for data science at NSA; there's a technical side and a workforce development side," she said. "Right now, I'm working on a document that brings together a lot of leaders' thinking on what skills we're looking for in data science new hires."

Dunn encourages students to consider NSA as a possible employer.

"There is no such thing as getting stuck in a rut and not being intellectually challenged at NSA," she said. "At NSA, we work to solve challenging, important problems that matter to the world."