From Connections Winter 2012-2013
Tales from the Cryptographer
Math majors do more than just teach
by Sofia Tokar
Most people imagine the National Security Agency as a sort of spy factory—employing America’s 007s and Jack Bauers, eavesdropping on clandestine foreign villains, or collecting and decoding top secret information from cyberspace while in an unmarked white van.
In reality, the NSA describes itself as “home to America’s codemakers and codebreakers,” providing “products and services to the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, government agencies, industry partners, and select allies and coalition partners.” The NSA provides critical intelligence to our nation’s leaders—intelligence that is used to combat terrorism and shape the course of world history. The agency is one of the largest employers of mathematicians in the United States, and it currently employs applied research mathematician Megan Tuttle Waterman ’97, a math and economics major from Nazareth College.
The secretive nature of the NSA intrigues many outsiders. When asked to describe a typical day at the office, Waterman quickly explains that much of her day-to-day work is variable and as the work is classified, she can’t take it home. Unable to share specifics, she does divulge that her work involves “any type of math problem that could be of interest to the agency, including crypt problems.”
The NSA is the lead center for cryptology for the United States government. Cryptology is the study of techniques for secure communications, the making of secret codes to protect against adversaries (cryptography) as well as the deciphering of others’ secret codes (cryptanalysis).
Waterman explains that most problems are nontrivial and require efforts across multiple offices and with several analysts or teams. Teamwork is key in this environment, and collaboration and interpersonal skills are essential. It doesn’t hurt to have problems that are challenging and important either. “Knowing the direct and immediate impact of my work is really satisfying,” she says. “Plus, working for the government in this capacity fosters a deeper level of patriotism.”
At the NSA, mathematicians are able to work on a range of different problems, from network security and computing to biometrics and intelligence value estimation. That’s fortunate for Waterman, since she describes herself as someone who likes to try many different things. She began her Nazareth education as a mathematics and art major, but a junior-year statistics course cemented her love for the applied side of mathematics.
“We were a close-knit group through Math Club, and we had excellent professors who challenged us to think in a logical manner, work with large data sets, and get as much information as possible,” she explains. “We didn’t just sit in class doing calculus. I didn’t know it then, but I was learning skills that would be readily applicable to my job now.”
During her time at Nazareth, Waterman came across an article in Math Horizons (a magazine primarily for undergraduate math students) about mathematicians at the NSA. Years later she would be profiled in the publication, acknowledging that the article she read had prompted her to make “a mental note that the NSA might be a fun place to work.” Waterman graduated early from Nazareth and decided to pursue her master’s and doctorate in statistics from Virginia Tech, and later an associate degree in Arabic from Howard Community College.
After finishing her Ph.D., Waterman was hired into the NSA’s Applied Mathematics Program, where she “spent three years working on a variety of different projects, including information processing, evaluations of new technologies, and computer security.” She also took classes in cryptomathematics, coding theory, and algorithm/stack development.
“I’m someone who likes to try lots of different things,” Waterman says, “and my career at the NSA has afforded me opportunities for both theoretical and applied mathematics work.”
Ten years into her career as a mathematician at the NSA, Waterman’s work remains fluid and flexible, challenging and important. And although it may not always involve martinis (shaken or stirred), her choice of career path nonetheless makes all the difference to her and her country.
Megan Tuttle Waterman ’97 is an applied research mathematician for the National Security Agency.