UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Over the last decade, Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology students have been analyzing emerging global security issues — such as the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 and the examination of the information campaign that targeted the 2016 U.S. presidential election — without ever leaving campus.
The Red Cell Analytics Lab (RCAL), a student organization in the college, weaves classroom concepts into hypothetical and real-world security scenarios. Members gain a number of professional skills, such as collaboration, critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, analytical writing, and briefing. Most importantly, members emerge with a new understanding of how current events affect local, national and international affairs, and how they can affect change to improve our nation’s security and prosperity.
“[Government] agencies are not going to hire you for your knowledge,” said Col. Jake Graham, professor of practice at IST and adviser of RCAL since the club’s inception. “Knowledge is a perishable commodity. It’s a moving target. The agencies want you to be able to look at problems and apply sound sense-making and reasoning, and then communicate that. Regardless of the threat domain or topic domain, you’ve got to be threat agnostic.”
Graham explained that the skills RCAL members gain position them to be top recruits for many federal agencies, including the CIA, FBI, the National Security Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security.
“[The agencies] know about us from alumni,” said Graham. “They come here specifically to hire RCAL students.”
Graham has kept track of all of the letters of recommendation that he has written for RCAL members in the last decade, counting a total of 388.
Added Graham, “Recruiters recognize the unique skill sets that come out of the college and out of the club, and keep coming back to recruit from the same talent pool.”
Federal agencies aren’t the only organizations that heavily seek out RCAL alumni. The skill sets are in high demand in industry, too.
David Van Hoof, a 2015 alumnus, is a senior associate in KPMG’s Cyber Security Advisory practice, where he primarily focuses on remediating Sarbanes-Oxley Act or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act audit findings for major financial institutions and health care systems by improving their privileged user management and access request process. He said that the skills he gained in RCAL have greatly impacted his work experience.
“As a consultant I am asked to walk into a client’s office, assess their current state, and make recommendations or perform some sort of remediation,” said Van Hoof. “Red Cell helped me learn how to ‘drink from a fire hose of information’ and still be able to keep my head and add value to the team.”
“In Red Cell a lot of complex problems are presented, and students have to learn how to take in the bigger picture and then make decisions based on what they have been given,” he added.
10 years of developing world-class analysts
RCAL got its start in 2007, when Dave Hall, former dean of the College of IST, with Graham as his deputy, started a research center. Some of the students working in the center were interested in the analytic approaches that they were exposed to in the lab, and wanted to apply those techniques to problems they were seeing in the classroom.
The following year, Graham took five of those students to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, to support a weekend-long exercise. The exercise was a red teaming approach, in which participants assume an adversarial role to challenge a Marine Corps operational domain — night helicopter operations in an urban environment.
“We acted as an adversary, trying to defeat a U.S. operational capability — but from the adversary’s point of view,” recalled Graham. “Along with a quick tutorial on night helicopter operations, I had to teach them some red cell techniques on the fly.”
Once the group returned to Penn State, the students asked Graham if they could participate in other similar exercises or problems. The opportunity soon arose when Penn State University Police asked Graham to develop a threat analysis and build a command post exercise around a night football game at Beaver Stadium. Graham pulled together the same five students to participate in that exercise, the planning for which lasted for six months.
From there, the students continued with smaller projects, and more participants joined. In January 2009, the students moved into the Red Cell Analytics Lab in Westgate Building, and the group became an officially recognized student organization in 2010.
“The students wanted to learn more structured analytic techniques that at the time weren’t taught in the classroom,” said Graham.
However, he said that the students’ strong yearning for these skills persuaded him to incorporate them into the classroom as part of the security and risk analysis curriculum.
“Curriculum influenced the establishment of RCAL, and now the club is structuring the makeup of the curriculum,” said Graham. “That’s a win-win.”
Solving global problems
For 10 years, RCAL members have been analyzing real-world local, national and global events and working to solve them. They’ve collaborated with state and national law enforcement on high-profile events, such as Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to Philadelphia and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ trip to University Park during his 2016 presidential campaign.
For Graham, one of the most memorable exercises occurred in 2014 after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
“That incident occurred over a weekend,” said Graham. “On Monday, a self-designated red team of students stood up and decided that they would do their own investigation as to the probable cause of that disappearance.”
According to Graham, the students came up with a series of hypotheses, building out plausible scenarios from actual data that was available, such as media reports, radar, and reporting from the military and law enforcement. The students ultimately proposed that the incident was a deliberate act of man, derived by the pilot alone.
In May of 2012, Graham briefed his students’ findings to the director of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), who was very much interested in hearing what a group of novice college students had concluded.
Last year, after six years of investigation, a panel of experts came up with the same most likely scenario that the RCAL students had presented, according to Graham.
“Needless to say, the director of the TSA was very impressed with what a group of undergraduates did,” he said.
Celebrating a decade
RCAL will host a project showcase from 5-8 p.m. on Saturday, March 23, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the club. The event, which will be held in E215 Westgate Building on the University Park campus, will highlight the organization’s research contributions, analytic training support, and commitment to providing the resources and learning opportunities for members to shape their future careers.
“Through this organization, a decade’s worth of Penn State students, including myself, have been able to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to sharpen our skills, make quality and meaningful analytic deliverables, and build a community of next-generation analysts that will make a great impact here at Penn State and especially in the workforce after graduation,” said Jessica Tatone, a junior majoring in security and risk analysis and communications director for RCAL.
Students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members interested in learning more about RCAL are invited to attend the celebration and showcase event. Refreshments will be available for all guests, as well as a basket raffle, RCAL tours, and an opportunity to purchase RCAL merchandise, including custom-designed pens and a special-edition 10th anniversary t-shirt. Registration is requested.