Mathematics alumnus analyzes crypt systems for NSA

Andy Nicol ’07

Andy Nicol ’07 heard about the benefits of completing Independent Study at The College of Wooster, but he never knew the experience with research would prepare him to protect the United States from security threats. Working in the National Security Agency’s Cybersecurity Directorate, Nicol’s career focuses on researching “next-generation cryptographic algorithms” that will remain strong as technology and code-breaking computers become more advanced. “Much like my I.S., I found a topic of importance both to me and the community, conducted research over the course of the year, and concluded my work by writing a research paper and presenting my findings to colleagues,” Nicol said. Additionally, he collaborates with people in his office to hone the final project, similar to his experience seeking feedback from math professors about his I.S. throughout his senior year. “I work with my mentor and coworkers daily to present what I’ve accomplished so far, ask questions, and listen to suggestions, then use that to improve my future work,” Nicol said. 

Collaborating and communicating with others is what Nicol says is the most important skill he learned at Wooster. He developed this in biology labs and rigorous math courses, but also through Wooster’s Applied Mathematics Research Experience (AMRE) program where students work to present new ideas to local companies and organizations. “I worked in a team of three with a faculty advisor to communicate with our customers in order to ensure our work was exactly what they wanted,” Nicol said. This became useful in his role as a cryptanalyst with the NSA in order to stay connected with the necessary U.S. government departments. “Being able to collaborate with representatives from these offices and agencies is what helps our mission,” Nicol said.  

The sentiment was similar when reflecting on the importance of Wooster’s liberal arts education. Nicol likened his interactions with students from diverse backgrounds to his experience in the Cybersecurity Directorate. He works with a variety of other groups and offices, like linguists and special forces and must understand their perspectives to better protect their communications. “Having the breadth of courses and experience given to students by Wooster’s liberal arts education enables me to effectively communicate and work together with a team,” he said. 

Nicol lauded the passion of his colleagues in creating a productive workplace. “The people I work with truly love their work and are the kind of people who complain when they have to go home,” he said. Their role in testing new crypt systems against simulated attacks and providing that information to the military and policy makers is what gives the Wooster alumnus meaning. “When our guidance is made available to the public in order to protect them, I feel confident that this is the career for me,” Nicol said. 

Posted in Alumni on June 8, 2021.