Featured School Series; Showcasing NSA's Academic Partnerships

National Security Agency (NSA) and
University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

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

  • 200+ UMBC graduates hired by NSA in past 5 years

  • Top Majors

    • Computer Engineering
    • Computer Science
    • Information Systems
    • Math
    • Mechanical Engineering
    • Political Science
    • Psychology
    • Visual Arts

    Top Degrees

    • Bachelors (84%)
    • Masters (13%)
    • Doctorate (3%)
  • 1100+ NSA employees with UMBC degrees

  • 15 UMBC graduates on patent applications filed by NSA

  • 200+ UMBC participants in NSA's Codebreaker Challenge in the past 3 years

  • 14,000+ Square feet of NSA research space on UMBC campus

  • UMBC is a Center of Academic Excellence

    The National Centers of Academic Excellence (CAE) promote higher education and research in the critical area of cyber defense. CAE schools produce professionals in the field with the expertise to reduce vulnerability in our national information infrastructure. UMBC has two CAE designations going back more than 10 years, one in cyber defense and one in research. Both programs are jointly sponsored by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

  • NSA and UMBC Partner on Technology Research

    NSA collaborates with UMBC through the Advanced Computing Systems Program. Together, ACS and UMBC work on research projects involving malware analysis and high performance data analytics. ACS and UMBC also develop simulation tools and lab exercises for computer architecture research which will influence graduate level courses in universities nationwide. NSA has hosted UMBC faculty and students at every level as visiting researchers in the ACS Lab, and several NSA researchers have received advanced degrees from UMBC.

  • NSA Sponsored UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars

    UMBC's Meyerhoff Scholarship Program seeks to increase diversity among future leaders in science, technology, engineering, math, and cyber related fields. NSA funded scholarships for the Meyerhoff Program and provided scholars the chance to interact with Agency employees to learn about the mission and STEM careers at NSA.

  • NSA Shares Its Expertise in the Classroom

    NSA regularly sends visiting professors to UMBC to teach subjects critical to national security. For example, an NSA employee has taught "Introduction to Software Reverse Engineering" at UMBC every spring since 2015. The course introduces aspiring cybersecurity professionals to an important technical aspect of the field and computer science students to a growing discipline within cybersecurity.

The Personal Side of the Partnership

Many UMBC students, graduates and professors have come to work at, or conduct research with, NSA. Here are a few of their stories.

Ahmad Ridley - Charter Meyerhoff Scholar

Portrait of Ahmad Ridley

NSA mathematician Ahmad Ridley was in the first group of Meyerhoff Scholars to graduate from University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) back in the early 1990s.

The scholarship program appealed to Ridley because its goal was to help minority students interested in science technology, engineering and math (STEM) earn a doctorate. Aside from the fact that it covered full tuition, his mother was impressed by the academic and family support the program offered.

"I think it played a major part in my success," says Ridley, who went on to get a master's degree and a doctorate in applied mathematics from University of Maryland, College Park.

Ridley started his career with a telecommunications consulting company in Northern Virginia before coming to NSA in 2008. Because he had heard about NSA in college, and even had professors at UMBC who worked at NSA, he was excited about the opportunity.

"I knew NSA hired a lot of mathematicians, and I knew there was the opportunity to do more research with my math background," he says. "Where I was, I was doing a lot of acquisition work; there wasn't a lot of opportunity to expand into research."

Now Ridley's job entails applying machine learning technology to improve cyber defense, he says. He likes that there are so many different opportunities at NSA.

"You can come in with a specific math focus and find a job doing that, but you will also find other ways to expand your math skills," he explains. "Mathematicians work in a variety of areas and offices tied to different aspects of the mission. It's a great opportunity to develop your technical skills that you may not have elsewhere."

Over the past few years, Ridley has taken time to mentor Meyerhoff Scholars at UMBC. He says he and other NSA professionals have met with students several times a year to talk about STEM careers at NSA.

"We provide mentoring and advice on a wide range of topics through their academic path towards a PhD," he says.

Ridley advises students to be aware of all the types of jobs and careers they have learned about from other companies and universities and to consider what might be possible at NSA.

"You might be surprised to know how many skills are used at the Agency," he says.

Alison Pfannenstein - Cryptologist in the Making

Portrait of Alison Pfannenstein

As a computer science major at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Alison Pfannenstein was very familiar with NSA. Both her mother and grandmother have worked at NSA.

She applied for several internships both at NSA and for private companies after her sophomore year in college.

"I was definitely hoping for NSA," she says. "I've always enjoyed puzzles and mystery, and cryptology always interested me. It's not something that's taught at UMBC, and I knew it was something I could get at NSA and not anywhere else."

She was accepted into a summer internship program and spent two summers at NSA before taking a full-time job after graduating in December 2014. She's never looked back.

This fall, Pfannenstein will complete NSA's Cryptologic Computer Science Development Program which allowed her to experience several different departments at NSA to give her a feel of what she wanted to do (similar to medical rotations). She plans to work in Digital Network Crypt Applications, designing and developing backend solutions for crypt capabilities.

"There is no better place in the world I can think of to work," she says. "I love it here. I love the people and I love the mission."

Once at NSA, Pfannenstein was surprised to learn how much training was offered internally. While she has taken several graduate level classes at UMBC for her development program, she has really enjoyed the classes offered through NSA's National Cryptologic School. The classes are actually fun, she says.

For students looking to have a career at NSA, Pfannenstein recommends finding a current employee to provide assistance.

"The people here want to talk to students and will go out of their way to help someone start a career or get on the right path," she says.

"And definitely take advantage of the student programs," she adds.

Darniet Jennings - Patented Inventor

Portrait of Darniet Jennings

When Darniet Jennings graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2003, he had the foundation for groundbreaking work at NSA that eventually led to a patent.

"I was constantly challenged and encouraged to think about concepts in a new way," Jennings said about his experience at UMBC, where he received a bachelor's, master's and doctorate degree in information systems and a second bachelor's in computer science. He was also a Meyerhoff Scholar, which helped cement his technology passion.

For his dissertation, Jennings researched how people process visual information for decision making. His research continued at NSA and resulted in the development of a system that helps analysts manage big data efficiently. His work was patented in 2010.

Jennings is from a military family which contributed to his decision to work for the Department of Defense. He became aware of NSA while at UMBC when he spoke to a recruiter about opportunities in research.

"I wanted to contribute to making this country safe … to help address challenges that the nation was facing at the time," he said.

Jennings worked in research at NSA in Maryland for eight years before moving to Texas where he works as a technical lead at NSA there. He continues to do research at the University of Texas, San Antonio and teaches as well. He often talks with students thinking about a career at NSA.

"I advise them to really think about the work they are most passionate about and how their talents and interests could contribute to national security," he said. "There's a good chance that if there is something they are interested in, we are doing it here at NSA."

Regina Hambleton - Senior NSA Leader

Portrait of Regina Hambleton

Regina Hambleton, NSA's deputy director of Engagement & Policy, has been working at the Agency since she completed her sophomore year at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

Her connection to NSA goes even further back, however, since both of her parents were NSA employees.

"I had been part of the government since I was a child. The government moved me, and sent me to school, and all my friends' parents worked here. I was completely surrounded by this bubble called NSA," she says. "Because of that, I was predestined to come to the Agency."

Hambleton had been attending a small school in England when it came time to apply for college. She applied to UMBC sight unseen, but it ended up being the perfect fit for her.

Hambleton majored in mathematics and received a second degree in computer science and a minor in French. After her sophomore year, she started working for NSA as part of a cooperative education program - spending a semester in school and a semester working. By the time she graduated, she had a year and a half of experience working for the government.

Though her professors had her apply to several other co-ops and labs, she was positive she wanted to work at NSA.

"I was interested in the mission, and I was a history buff," she says. "I was always reading about current events, and the opportunity to be part of something important also drew me in."

Thirty-one years later, Hambleton is still with NSA. She credits great colleagues, an interesting mission, and opportunities for travel (she's lived in the United Kingdom and Germany) for keeping her here.

She encourages college students to consider a career at NSA for the many benefits and diversity of the mission. Whether they are interested in cybersecurity, computer science, engineering, mathematics, language or some biological or chemical science - there is something at NSA for them.

"You can have multiple careers and the opportunity for living abroad," she says. "It's really a great place to work."

Rita Doerr - Academic Liaison to UMBC

Portrait of Rita Doerr

Rita Doerr is a story teller, and she loves to tell how she managed to balance a career at NSA while obtaining her doctorate from University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) - a feat that took 10 years to complete.

Doerr received her master's degree in applied mathematics from UMBC in 1984, but right before she graduated -- while picking up her cap and gown -- they asked her to apply to a brand new PhD program in computer science. Since she was still a student, it was free to apply so she figured, "why not?" and the math department administrative assistant filled out the application for her.

After two months at NSA, Doerr was accepted to the program at the same time she was admitted to a Cryptanalysis Math Internship Program at NSA. When her father asked which she was going to choose, she matter-of-factly stated she would do both.

"The first semester, I was taking five classes - three classified and two at UMBC," all while working, she says. She took advantage of every program NSA offered to help finish her doctorate including a fellowship that paid her to spend a year at Carnegie Mellon University doing research for her dissertation. Her research -- studying words in different languages that tend to go together (such as strong coffee vs. sturdy coffee) to identify them within machine translation systems -- blended nicely with her work in the Research group at NSA looking into natural language processing.

Currently, Doerr is an instructor in NSA's National Cryptologic School's College of Cyber where she teaches computer science. She's also in the Senior Technical Development Program investigating the technologies and learning strategies for cyber education and training.

"I've always told people that nowhere else on this earth can you (legally) work on operational mission problems like you can here at NSA, especially from the mathematics, computer science, and cryptanalytic perspectives," she says. "There has never been a dull moment for me while working at NSA. There's always been something to keep me interested, pique my curiosity, and keep me technically challenged."

Doerr also serves as an academic liaison between NSA and UMBC. The partnership makes sense, she says, since the university is in close proximity and it provides hiring, recruitment, and research opportunities. Doerr hopes to spend time teaching and doing research there starting next spring.

Her advice to students is to stay in school for as long as they can and obtain at least a master's degree in a STEM-related field. "It would only strengthen their chances of technical advancement here at NSA."

Charles Nicholas - UMBC Professor

Portrait of Charles Nicholas

Several University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) faculty have spent sabbaticals completing research at the Department of Defense (DoD), including Charles Nicholas, professor of computer science and electrical engineering.

Nicholas completed two sabbaticals at NSA during the 1996-1997 and 2011-2012 academic years. During those times he both conducted research and mentored students who were completing NSA internships, including students who went on to pursue careers at NSA.

During his most recent sabbatical, Nicholas focused on malware analysis. He studied malware specimens to understand how they work, what damage they can cause, and how the damage can be addressed and repaired. Nicholas is interested in the intersection of cybersecurity and data science, and system tools that are used to compare malware specimens.

"My goal is to understand the malware problem on a large scale," he explains. "The fact that malware is a problem for the intelligence community and also for the commercial sector makes it all the more interesting."

The resources that Nicholas has had access to, and the projects that he has worked on at NSA, have impacted his career trajectory.

"Working with the NSA has been a huge part of my career, in terms of students and colleagues that I get to work with, problems that I would otherwise have never thought of, and last, but certainly not least, resources that allow me and my students to work on problems that are interesting as well as important to the Nation," he says.

Nicholas points out that there are so many opportunities for students in the Intelligence Community, including at NSA.

"It is important for students interested in those careers to develop technical ability, as well as critical and creative thinking, and I enjoy the chance to help them grow those skills," he says.

For more information about NSA's 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 UMBC, visit the UMBC website.