Applied mathematician helps ensure a safe and resilient cyberspace

Jessie Jamieson

In the U.S. Department of Homeland (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, doctoral candidate Jessie Jamieson used her passion for mathematics to help develop a framework to detect anomalies in big data sets, especially in the healthcare and network security spheres.

Jessie Jamieson uncaps her orange marker and fervently drags it across the dry erase board, forming horizontal lines and numbers and symbols with the familiar fluid motion of a practiced mathematician. She steps back, analyzes and readjusts her approach. She is on a quest for the ideal solution, and she knows in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields this requires patience and perseverance.

“A career in a STEM field is a career of discovery and sometimes one which requires one to be willing to ‘Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!’ as Miss Frizzle would say on The Magic School Bus,” said Jamieson, a doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

“I would encourage students pursuing careers in STEM to not give up if they become deterred or stuck. It is important to count every discovery or realization, no matter how big or small, as a great contribution to science and society,” she said.

This past summer, Jamieson spent three months making her own contributions in the field of applied mathematics. She conducted research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Program.

The DHS HS-STEM Program provides undergraduate and graduate students majoring in homeland security-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the United States.

Jamieson’s goal at ORNL was to formulate an agile and adaptive mathematical framework to help detect abnormal data points called anomalies in large, continuous streams of data. Health care and security are two fields where detection especially matters, given that anomalies could be indicative of disease or cyber threats, respectively.

“In the health care industry, monitoring an individual’s heart rate, temperature or other vital signs and alerting on anomalies may save lives,” said Jamieson. “From a cybersecurity standpoint, registering a hacker as an anomaly could keep sensitive material out of the hands of malicious parties.”

Anomaly detection methods have long existed, but these methods have been hard to adapt to the rapidly expanding volume of real-time data as society increasingly relies on technology and data-driven solutions to problems of health and safety.

Under the mentorship of Robert Bridges, Ph.D., a research mathematician in ORNL’s Cyber & Information Sciences Research Group, Jamieson and her team members used the popular programming language Python™ to explore novel mathematical frameworks and test them on large data sets. By the end of the summer, the team achieved more than expected, Jamieson said, owing largely to the camaraderie felt among the team members.

“My team members and I worked so well together with Dr. Bridges that we designated our group ‘Team Bridges,’” Jamieson said. “There were a few times when our group was so excited to find solutions to key problems that we researched for hours until we made progress on the problem and were satisfied. We joked that the math was our chauffeur, helping us arrive at the solution.”

Jamieson, who applied to the DHS HS-STEM Program to learn what life was like for a mathematician employed outside of academia, enjoyed the cooperative environment at ORNL and the poignant focus of the team to achieve its goal.

“After being in academia for so long, it is easy to forget what it feels like to work with professionals outside of your field of expertise, but at ORNL we often cross-collaborated,” said Jamieson, who is now planning to pursue a career outside of academia. “Because of this, I felt like I was contributing to something bigger than myself and that my research would have immediate and lasting effects on society as a whole.”

Jamieson and her team members are submitting their preliminary research to a competitive publication venue, and Jamieson plans to return to ORNL next spring to make additional advancements on the project.

“Overall, my experience in the DHS HS-STEM Program was phenomenal. I loved the research I conducted, and I loved the people I researched with. Dr. Bridges was a particularly excellent mentor,” said Jamieson. “I made great friends, met new collaborators and sharpened my applied research skills. I would definitely recommend my experience to others. ”

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.

Additional information on the research of Bridges and ORNL’s Cyber & Information Security Research Group can be found at their respective websites.