The Personal Side of Partnership with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
NSA and Illinois have been working together for more than 19 years on cybersecurity research. Read on to learn about some individuals who have worked with complex problems related to the Agency’s mission.
Brad Kline – Mathematician Solving Hard National Security Problems
Brad Kline pursued a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) in mathematics with the singular goal of becoming a university professor. Instead he’s been at NSA for 19 years.
While he did actually teach at the university level for five years (first at the U.S. Air Force Academy and then the Metropolitan State College - now University of Denver), he got sidetracked at an NSA recruitment booth at a national mathematics conference.
“I was instantly struck by how compelling and how fun a position at the Agency sounded,” he said. “I could immediately see how important the work was for our safety and security, and I was hooked.”
Before he took the job Kline knew that NSA was a world leader in cryptography and cryptanalysis, he said. He was surprised to learn, however, that the Agency has plenty of really hard problems requiring top-notch talent, creativity, and perseverance well outside the crypt realm.
“I have spent my career so far doing very satisfying technical work – none of it specifically involving cryptographic science,” he explained.
Kline started at NSA in the Applied Mathematics Program, a development program that allowed him to spend several years rotating through different areas of the Agency.
“The development program was fantastic,” he said. “It really gives you a breadth and diversity of Agency experiences. You get to see the wide variety of different missions and projects.”
Kline has spent the bulk of his career in NSA’s Research Directorate conducting and leading research efforts in mathematics and computer science. He recently took a position as the chief data scientist for the Applied Research and Development Division of U.S. Cyber Command, the unified military command responsible for directing and coordinating all cyberspace operations across the Department of Defense.
“Cybersecurity is something I am interested in,” he said. “It’s an imperative national security need. …The job I am in now is predominantly about cyber defense, and that’s a critical part of both Cyber Command’s and NSA’s missions.”
Kline is animated when talking about the work he does.
“The most exciting thing about working here is the ability to discover new knowledge that you know you are the first person to discover,” he said. “I’ve solved problems that I know had a positive impact on national security, but I know I can’t share that success with anyone outside the Agency. Those are the most exciting times.”
One of the most important things he learned while working toward his PhD at Illinois was how to have patience with the elusiveness of a solution; how to bounce back from pursuing promising paths that led to dead ends; how to come back the next day (and the day after that) with new and creative ideas, and how sometimes -- but not always -- you get to celebrate the triumph of a success. Some jobs at NSA have the same aspect, he said.
“The breadth of knowledge I gained from Illinois has served me, particularly in leadership roles, because there are numerous connections, relationships and analogies I can make between today’s problems and yesterday’s learning,” he said. “I am sometimes amazed by how something I learned at Illinois 25-30 years ago has an application to some modern problem in communications networks or signals processing. That’s really cool.”
Kline encourages mathematics students to seriously consider NSA when looking for a job.
“A large Agency such as ours, with its myriad technical missions and problem sets, give a college grad the potential for a diversity of on-the-job training that few other companies or institutions can match,” he said. That along with the work-life balance and opportunity to work with other recent college graduates, makes NSA a great employer, he said.
Mary Lynn Reed – Former NSA Leader Now Advocating From Academia
Mary Lynn Reed, former Chief of Math Research, left NSA last summer after 19 years to take a lead role at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and to be closer to her wife, but she still misses the Agency every day.
“It was hard to leave NSA,” Reed said. “It has the combination of the mission and the people – having the shared purpose of the mission builds community, and the math community is very strong.”
Reed actually started off as a college professor and stumbled into working at NSA. An applied math major at Georgia Institute of Technology, she fell in love with abstract algebra and went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) for her master’s and doctorate degrees. Near the end of her doctoral work, she attended an employment fair at a large mathematics meeting where NSA requested an interview with her.
“I figured ‘what the heck, it will just be 20 minutes of my life,’” she explained. But she was intrigued by the interview. “They asked great questions and knew a lot about the math I had been working on. It made a big impression on me,” she said. She took a faculty job upon graduation but a year later, Reed received a recruitment letter from the head of the NSA math research group encouraging her to apply, so she did.
“It’s a great place to work,” Reed said. “It’s the best math community that exists. It’s very collaborative – brilliant people collaborating and working to help each other out. It’s hard to find that anywhere else.”
Over the years, Reed spent the majority of her time in the Math Research Group, but she also worked on the operations side in cryptanalysis. As Chief of Math Research, she also oversaw the three Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) centers. She applied advanced mathematics to mission critical problems and helped set the strategic direction of the NSA mathematics research effort.
A number of Reed’s colleagues from NSA are also Illinois graduates. Two of them nominated her for the school’s Mathematics Alumni Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement, which she won in 2018. She was lauded for making direct research contributions to the classified and unclassified bodies of mathematics literature, being a leader for diversity and inclusion, and for her dedication to increasing the participation of women in mathematical sciences.
While working at NSA solving difficult mission problems, Reed also received her Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of Maryland.
“I was fortunate that my job allowed me the work/life balance to pursue my dream of studying fiction and literature formally,” she said. She’s also written a novel – a coming of age story of a young female mathematician – which she hopes to publish one day.
For now, life has taken a different turn for Reed. Last summer, she got married and took the job as the head of RIT’s School of Mathematical Sciences. Her wife, formerly the Head of Costumes for the Metropolitan Opera, is retired and lives in upstate New York.
“I always wanted to be a faculty member. That was always in the back of my mind,” she said. “I love being in front of the classroom and seeing the lightbulbs go on above students’ heads as I teach.”
Now that she has the opportunity every day, Reed tells her students they can do anything they want with a math degree.
“There is huge growth opportunity at places like NSA in math and cybersecurity,” she said. “If you have the math skills, you can do so many things.”
David Nicol – Professor Helps NSA to Secure the Nation
David Nicol, the Franklin W. Woeltge Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois), appreciates that NSA is looking for professors and students to do early stage research on hard cybersecurity problems.
Many sponsors want universities to do applied research – work that is further along on the “technology readiness” scale, Nicol explained. By contrast, NSA has been investing in research at the early stages.
“The work at this level is more conceptual,” he said. “I like being able to do basic foundational research.”
Nicol is the director of three technical institutes at Illinois, the Information Trust Institute, the Critical Infrastructure Resiliency Institute, and the Advanced Digital Sciences Center in Singapore. He has been involved in NSA’s Science of Security (SoS) Lablet at the university since its inception in 2011.
“I was pleased that the problem of viewing the scientific basis for security was being taken seriously,” Nicol said. “It’s commendable that NSA recognized this issue and invested resources into studying it.”
NSA’s six university SoS Lablets are helping to stimulate basic research into the scientific underpinnings for security, both theoretical and experimental. At Illinois’ Lablet, Nicol and a graduate student have been developing means to compute uncertainty in security analysis. Nicol says “models will predict how secure a system is, but you also need to know how much trust to put into the models’ predications.”
Computing has interested Nicol for a long time. In high school, he took an interest aptitude test that pointed him towards computer programming. At Carleton College, he majored in math and took such computer science courses as existed in the 1970’s and realized the profile had been right. He was hooked.
After college, Nicol took a job as a programmer/analyst with a pioneering supercomputer company and enjoyed learning about computing in embedded signal processing systems. He soon realized, however, he needed an advanced degree for the job he really wanted in developing algorithms. He took a leave of absence and went to graduate school at the University of Virginia, earning a doctorate in computer science. He originally intended to return to industry, but found his way instead into academia.
Nicol began exploring cybersecurity in 1999, as a computer science professor at Dartmouth College “by a historical accident,” he said. He had been working in network analysis, when Dartmouth accepted a large earmark from Congress to establish the Institute for Security Technology Studies, in which he had a leadership role.
“I came to see that security research had societal benefit, and was a prime application area for the kind of research I was already doing.” Nicol said. “I would be helping to protect society.”
Nicol said that working with NSA has validated the way he’s been spending his time.
“Working on foundational research problems as partners with NSA in this intellectual space and knowing that NSA and the nation is benefiting from the work we do has been satisfying,” he said.
For more information about academic partnerships, please send us an email. To apply for a student program or full-time job at NSA, please visit www.intelligencecareers.gov For more information about programs at Illinois, visit the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign website.