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Authorized Access
The Frontlines of Cyber-Security

Lisa Marvel grew up near the Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) in northern Maryland, but the technical work done at the Army laboratory that helped develop the world’s first digital computer seemed far away. She admits to being a not-too-enthusiastic student and never thought about going to college. As a high-school senior, Marvel took a half-day internship at APG “because, honestly, I wanted to get out of classes.” Her primary task was to make copies, of which she made tens of thousands.  She also remembers using vintage word-processor printers that were so noisy that they had to be enclosed in acoustic cases. Her career expectations were modest, and when she graduated from high school, she began working at APG as a clerical employee.

As her duties progressed and she switched employers at APG, Marvel began picking up programming skills. “Back in the ‘80s almost anyone could get involved in programming; it was more of a layman’s apprentice skill -- you learned it on the fly.” She took a few courses at the community college and as the computer revolution got into full swing, workers with computer and programming skills were in short supply. By then, she was working at the Army’s Aberdeen Test Center at APG. One day, Marvel’s boss asked her if she wanted to go back to school to learn more. “Sure, why not?” she replied almost casually, still not fully appreciating her own intellect or the career opportunity that was unfolding before her.

The Army paid her tuition and expenses at the University of Pittsburgh, where in 1992 she earned her bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. With her new diploma, she came back to work at the Test Center and soon got another “sweet deal” — a GE-funded fellowship covering tuition and a stipend to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Delaware. She worked toward her master’s degree and with only her thesis to complete, she returned to work at the Test Center. Then, in another serendipitous turn of events, Marvel ran into a friend who worked at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) at APG.  He told her that at ARL she could complete her thesis on the job by researching an Army-relevant topic. Marvel accepted a position at ARL, finished her thesis in 1996, and started working on her doctorate in electrical engineering, which she earned in 1999.

“There’s no way I would have gone to college had I not worked at Aberdeen,” says Marvel. “I can’t imagine getting my advanced degrees if I hadn’t had an employer who enabled and encouraged me or supervisors and coworkers who mentored me.”

Today, Marvel helps develop tools to protect Army networks from unauthorized access. Marvel and her coworkers are on the frontlines of cyber-security, a highly sensitive task that continues to evolve and become more complex with the proliferation of network devices and wireless communications.

“I use the math and science I learned in school to solve real-world problems,” says Marvel. “It’s very fun work, and I feel like I’m making critical contributions every day.”

Now married and a mother of two children, Marvel is active in STEM educational outreach, primarily through the youth center and child-development center on post and through ARL’s activities in conjunction with the National Defense Education Program (NDEP). Among other activities, Marvel is teaching a circuits class for kids this summer, and she coordinates a distinguished lecture series that brings in scientists and engineers to talk to young people about math and science. Somehow she also finds time to mentor high-school students at the Harford County Public Schools Math and Science Academy. Part of what motivates Marvel is her own children: “I want them to be geeky too!”

Regarding her work, Marvel is unequivocal: “This is the best place to work on Earth!” After all, APG is where the first electronic digital computer, ENIAC, was deployed in the 1940s in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania to compute World War II ballistic firing tables. ARL was also one of the beginning nodes on the ARPAnet, which we now know as the Internet.

“If somebody came to me early on and told me what math, science, and engineering are all about, I might not have started out making copies," says Marvel. "I feel fortunate to be where I am.”

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