IST lab gives students opportunity to think from the 'red cell'

December 18, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Anticipating security threats, analyzing disaster response, and thinking critically about how to better evaluate and manage threats — these are all things that Penn State's Red Cell Analytics Lab (RCAL) students do every day.

But, while the kinds of critical thinking involved in RCAL are integrated into the classroom, many of the students involved do so outside of class time, as part of their extracurricular activities.

"I found the club my first year during the annual IST [Information Sciences and Technology] Connections Day," recalls RCAL officer Mason Northrop. "The first meeting hooked me after hearing about all of the cool past and future projects." 

Housed in the College of Information Sciences and Technology but open to any active Penn State student, the RCAL student organization provides hands-on experience using structured analytics to examine real-world problems — from cyber threats to natural disaster response and everything in between. 

Thinking like the adversary

The term "red cell" refers to teams of military personnel, often called "red cells," that are trained specifically to test the effectiveness of American military tactics. 

"The notion of the red cell," explains Col. Jake Graham, "is to study threats from an adversarial point of view." 

Graham, professor of practice in information sciences and technology and director of the lab, continues: "What the adversarial point of view does is approach from the blind spot. So we've got to think like the adversary to identify those blind spots, those gaps." 

Addressing threats

One way students have honed their analytical skills is to work with THON committees to evaluate and test their security plan. 

Outside of the University, social media monitoring teams have looked at social sentiment related to major world events. This included work with the Pennsylvania State Police to monitor social media ahead of and during the Pope's visit to Philadelphia earlier this year. 

"We are threat agnostic," says Graham. "We're not focused on a particular category of threat — be it cyber or physical, domestic or global. We want our students to be comfortable with analyzing threats across a broad spectrum."

What students gain from their experiences in the RCAL, they say, is a kind of analytical thinking that doesn't come from the classroom. 

"That's what we're really trying to promote: critical thinking and analytics," Graham says. "We want to teach a methodology and a frame of mind and a thirst for critical thinking and reading. And then we communicate the judgments into sound analytical writing and briefing.

"So we promote structured analytic techniques and apply those to a broad range of problems."

And these skills are setting them apart when it comes to talking with recruiters and landing jobs.

Recruiting advantages

"RCAL is a great talking point for recruiters, says Samantha Small, RCAL communications officer, a senior pursuing a double major in security and risk analysis and music, with a minor in international studies. "I've spent many job interviews impressing recruiters with all that I have accomplished while still in college." 

Northrop adds, "Companies are always surprised to see how much we really do and the various types of projects we get to work on. Everything we do in the club can be transferred to the workforce, and employers see that." 

Many students involved in RCAL get jobs working for government agencies like the CIA, FBI or NSA, and others go into the information technology security field. Still others work in security divisions in the financial sector; security and risk analysis student and RCAL director Meghan Graham, for example, exercised her red cell skills in an internship at Ernst & Young. 

Participating in RCAL

RCAL is a student club perfect for security and risk analysis majors — or any student in the College of IST — but is also open to any active Penn State student. 

"Previously, we've only scouted students from inside our own college, but this year we decided that there's a lot to be gained from bringing in different majors and different perspectives," says Meghan Graham. 

"We tell people that they don't have to come in with any prerequisite knowledge — just a fresh perspective and critical thinking skills."

  • Students work with technology and equipment in the Red Cell Analytics Lab

    Red Cell Analytics Lab student participants work with the high-tech equipment available in the lab, used to simulate threats and analyze information.

    IMAGE: Michelle Bixby
  • Red Cell Lab IST-003

    Col. Jacob Graham, professor of practice in security and risk analysis in Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology, studies a map with students Trevor Fisk, Mary Lieb and Allyson Flanagan, left to right, in the Red Cell Analytics Lab, located in the IST Building on Penn State's University Park Campus.

    IMAGE: Patrick Mansell, Penn State
  • Students sit around a table with lab director Jake Graham

    Red Cell Analytics Lab students talk with Col. Jacob Graham, director of the lab, who leads them as they develop the critical thinking skills to assess and manage threats. 

    IMAGE: Michelle Bixby
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Last Updated December 18, 2015