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Student benefits from special summer program

Thomas Simmons | Supplied photo

Thomas Simmons | Supplied photo

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Updated: September 5, 2014 2:10AM



While most college students put their studies on hold when they get a summer job, Illinois Wesleyan University student Tom Simmons was able to continue his academic pursuits and get paid this summer when he became a part of the Eckley Summer Scholar and Artist Program.

An Evergreen Park native, Simmons, is a computer science major entering his senior year at Wesleyan with a special interest in online cryptography, which is used for securing information on the Internet.

“Cryptography is all around us,” he said. “Every time we secure our communications, use online banking, check our email or buy something from Amazon we are using cryptography.”

Originally drawn to computer science in high school by the idea of coding and game design, Simmons became interested in cryptography when he got to college and found books on the subject in the school library.

“My sophomore year I found out my professor was doing research on the subject, and I approached him about it,” Simmons said. “He told me about his work, and I started to help him as a research assistant.”

While he also works as a teaching assistant in the computer science program during the school year, his research with assistant math professor Andrew Shallue has continued independently of Simmons’ class work. It was Shallue who recommended that Simmons apply for the Eckley scholarship and who served as his summer mentor.

“The Eckley program is an opportunity at Wesleyan to do research over the summer,” Simmons said. “They pay you and provide housing on campus, so it’s like a summer job but only five or six students get it each year.”

Simmons is the only member of the computer science program to receive the scholarship this year and has used it to continue his work with Shallue on a project that’s focused on public key cryptography.

This type of security is automatically embedded in websites where sensitive information such as bank account and credit card numbers are transferred to protect the data from being intercepted or altered in transmission. In order to do this, a system generates two numbers, or “keys,” that are mathematically related to lock and unlock the messages sent between computers.

Essentially, every computer in the world has these two key numbers. One is publicly accessible by any other computer, but the other is only known by the receiving computer. When a computer sends a message to another, it finds the receiver’s public key and uses it to encrypt the message. When the message is sent, the receiving computer uses its private key to unlock the message.

Once the message is on the receiving computer, anyone with access to the account can view it, which is why this sort of encryption is usually used with a password-protected system.

The trick to making this work is how the numbers are related. They need to be generated using incredibly complex equations that are so time-consuming for computers to solve that it makes stealing the information impractical or impossible. This block effectively neutralizes the threat of information being hijacked in transit.

And this is where Simmons and Shallue’s work comes in. They are working on theoretical applications of the technology, based on equations for curves on a graph.

“A lot of systems do this by multiplying huge prime numbers,” Simmons said. “This involves adding points on a graph together and is even more difficult to solve because there are literally thousands of possibilities to solve the equation.”

Simmons and Shallue plan to continue their research and publish a paper on their findings this school year.

After graduation, Simmons plans to attend graduate school and eventually get a job designing computer and data security. He’s grateful for the opportunity to take part in the Eckley scholarship program.

“It’s a great program,” he said. “It really helps further research, and it’s just a great opportunity for students to get hands-on experience and dedicate some real time to their fields of interest.”



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