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Robb Selected for NSA Director’s Summer Program

Kayla Robb, UTA Math student
A mathematics major at The University of Texas at Arlington will be spending her summer working to solve cryptographic problems important to national security.

Kayla Robb, a junior who is minoring in computer science, was one of about two dozen students selected from universities nationwide to participate in the National Security Administration (NSA) Director’s Summer Program. The program brings undergraduate students together to collaborate with each other and with NSA researchers on classified, mission-critical problems.

Participants work in teams while conducting research on a wide range of problems in mathematics, cryptology, and communications technology.

Robb heard about the prestigious and highly competitive program and asked her faculty mentor, Theresa Jorgensen, about it.

“I mentioned it to Dr. Jorgensen to see if she thought I might have a chance,” Robb said. “She thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for me and encouraged me to apply.”

Jorgensen, an associate professor of mathematics, said she has been impressed by Robb’s research abilities since Robb first arrived on campus.

“Kayla is a super-talented mathematician with really strong coding skills to boot,” Jorgensen said. “This is a very elite research program which selects the best and brightest undergrad mathematicians from the United States, and it’s a fantastic opportunity for Kayla. I’m very proud of her. She sought out research opportunities starting her first semester as a freshman and has been developing her research skills in parallel to her coursework. She will be a great representative of UTA in this distinguished summer program.”

The Director’s Summer Program will run for about 12 weeks, starting right after Memorial Day and continuing through mid-August. Students will live in socially distanced housing near the NSA campus in Fort Meade, Maryland. During the first two weeks of the program, they will receive a crash course which introduces them to NSA mathematics and presents the specific problems to be tackled.

For Robb, who last year was named Outstanding Sophomore by the Department of Mathematics, an appreciation of math runs in the family. While growing up in Benbrook, just outside Fort Worth, Robb had an excellent math teacher – her mom. Robb was homeschooled for all of her pre-college education, and her mother was a dual mathematics and computer science major in college.

“She taught all my academic subjects and spent a lot of time with me discussing math,” Robb said. “I honestly never had much interest in math until I started learning calculus. It was so different from the computational math I’d done until that point, and it made me want to see what else in math I hadn’t explored. Math is very beautiful and intuitive, but it also has so many varied applications.”

During her senior year of high school, Robb first learned about cryptography, the study of secure communication techniques which utilize codes.

“I’d played around with linguistic ciphers when I was younger. When I realized that the field went so much deeper and had a strong mathematical basis, I decided I wanted to work in cryptography after college,” she said. “I wanted to learn about the math that makes cryptography work.”

Robb decided to come to UTA because her brother and one of her sisters attended previously and she had good memories of visiting them on campus as a child.

“Additionally, I love the size of the upper-level courses I have taken — they are large enough to foster good discussion but not so large that I feel like the professor doesn’t have a chance to interact with me,” she said. “I also was interested in exploring the research options available to me here at UTA.”

She got involved in research during her freshman year and also was accepted into the UTA Honors College, which requires students to take special honors courses, write a senior thesis, and graduate with an Honor Degree in their chosen discipline, among other benefits. She also earned an Honors Presidential Scholarship.

“I wanted to really understand my thesis topic when I wrote about it and felt that starting the learning process as early as possible would help me better understand what I was presenting,” she said. “I feel like starting [research] early did help — under Dr. Jorgensen’s mentorship, I have looked into fields of math related to cryptography from number theory to chaos theory.”

Robb is presenting her senior thesis this semester. It involves creation of an image encryption system keyed by fractals to test how the fractals’ dimensions affect the encryption security. She credits Jorgensen with helping prepare her to succeed following graduation.

“Working with Dr. Jorgensen has been a wonderful experience that has both prepared me for the industry and has shown me a wide array of topics in math,” Robb said. “Dr. Jorgensen was incredibly supportive of my ideas and instructive for the areas of research I was interested in.”

The NSA has hosted the Director’s Summer Program since 1990. It has become a cornerstone of the agency’s strategy to engage the academic mathematics community and is the NSA’s premier outreach effort to the nation’s most outstanding undergraduate math majors.

Students participating in the program work on a range of problems involving applications of abstract algebra, geometry, number theory, analysis, probability, statistics, combinatorics, graph theory, algorithms, and computer science. Throughout the summer, students develop mathematical theory, and apply what they learn to obtain real-time solutions. State-of-the-art computing resources are available to all students, as well as a variety of computational algebra and statistics packages.

The program also includes an annual day-long classified math conference, called Mathfest, and an annual awards banquet. The students take interesting tours, both at NSA and at other agencies in the intelligence community.

Learn more about the NSA Director’s Summer Program at https://www.intelligencecareers.gov/nsa/nsastudents.html.

College of Science students, are you interested in becoming involved in research? Learn more at https://www.uta.edu/science/research/index.php.