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PSU student partners visit agency, demonstrate analytic prowess

10 February 2016

Carling Uhler
NGA Office of Corporate Communications

Imagine an occasion where university students get the chance to brief the director of an intelligence agency on a matter of national security.

Students from a Penn State University intelligence analytic group had that opportunity when they visited the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Springfield, Virginia Jan. 29 to tour the facility and brief Director Robert Cardillo on their current projects.

A group of nine students, led by the team’s student director, Penn State senior Meghan Graham, briefed results of past projects and gave updates on current studies to Cardillo and NGA’s chief of staff, Ed Mornston.

The students dissect real-world scenarios ranging from stadium security to airliner disappearances, then develop solutions to the problems.

Using a military approach of “red teaming” to solve non-military problems, students run test scenarios to challenge the effectiveness of an organization and offer solutions to strengthen capabilities. The team views the problems through the lens of the enemy. The students work with local law enforcement and the university to test friendly courses of action and create resolutions.

“We’re the only students you’ll find solving real-world problems, right now,” said Graham. “We’re training the next generation analyst.”

The Red Cell Analytics Lab is made up of a team of Penn State students, majoring in Security Risk and Analysis, said Jake Graham, Penn State professor of practice, RCAL team advisor and Meghan’s father. The lab grew out of student interest and desire to gain experience in the analytics process beyond the classroom. The organization started with six students, and its membership has grown to more than 200 students and alumni.

Students in the lab have examined issues ranging from student life and campus threats to national security and maritime disasters, said Jake Graham. Its members comprise diverse academic backgrounds in engineering, security administration and communications, and even includes a student who is the long snapper for the Penn State football team.
Cardillo commended the students for their work, specifically their use of open source data and unclassified information for their research. 

“More of our future engagement will be in the open,” said Cardillo. “You are part of the untapped potential.”

NGA and Penn State signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in 2011, marking the first NGA partnership with an academic institution. In October, Cardillo visited the lab at Penn State, resigned the CRADA and invited the students and their advisors to visit NGA. The visit was an opportunity to foster the relationship with one of NGA’s biggest academic partners.

“The NGA leadership bring an informed perspective and can provide feedback on our work,” said Meghan Graham. “We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to continue building a partnership with NGA.”