UB AWM hosts lecture by Alyssa Thomson, Mathematician, U.S. National Security Agency

A Look at the Crypt at the NSA — An Overview of Public Key Cryptography

Alyssa Thompson  

Published February 29, 2016

Alyssa Thompson (née Brown) earned her bachelor of science degree in applied mathematics from UB in 2008. A native of Western New York, she decided to stay at UB for her graduate work, earning her Master’s in 2010 and her PhD in June 2012.  She spent one summer in graduate school at the National Security Agency’s Graduate Mathematics Program.

Thompson's doctoral thesis, advised by UB professor Tom Cusick, studied affine equivalence of some rotation symmetric boolean functions along with recursive weights of some boolean functions. After graduation she was hired full-time by the NSA. She remains there today, working on designing (top secret!) new cryptosystems.

Alyssa recently returned to UB to present a well-attended lecture, “A Look at the Crypt at the NSA — An Overview of Public Key Cryptography” to our AWM chapter, giving us the opportunity to ask her a few questions:

1. What preparation do you recommend for a UB graduate student who is interested in working at the NSA permanently or in their summer program?

NSA will hire employees with a variety of math backgrounds, but some of the areas that are going to stand out the most are: analysis, algebra, probability, statistics, number theory and graph theory. Having a background in computer science will also give you an advantage. If you don't have a degree or minor in computer science, I would recommend at least taking a couple classes to show that you are able to learn how to write code. For anyone looking at permanent employment, NSA has a good training and development program for new mathematicians, so learning on the job is easy to do and encouraged. The summer programs are also a great way to get a feel for what NSA is about without making a long term decision.

2. Was there any particular course or instructor at UB that had the greatest influence on you?

I worked with Dr. Cusick on my doctoral thesis and he certainly influenced my decisions to work in this field. He always had some interesting comments on security and cryptography which pulled me into the work. I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Cusick's cryptography course and all of my algebra and number theory courses. Being able to continue working in those mathematical areas became my goal and led me to working at NSA.

3. What do you enjoy most about your job?

Working at NSA surprisingly comes with a lot of flexibility. I've been able to make choices about the offices I've worked in and the type of research I'm working on. There's also flexibility from a personal viewpoint; I'm able to choose my own schedule and also receive a nice amount of time off that I can use. The most rewarding thing about this job is the work itself. I know that I'm working for my country, protecting its citizens and saving lives — there aren't many jobs that can top that.