Andrew Masterson '06

Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Majors: Mathematics & Computer Science
Senior Study Title: “Cryptography”
Advisor: Dr. Barbara Plaut

Thesis Abstract

Andrew Masterson ’06, a soft spoken and modest Maryville grad, didn’t look into cryptography until the first week of Senior Study. His advisor, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dr. Barbara Plaut, suggested the broad topic of Information Security, and from there, Masterson honed his focus to the specific study of cryptography.

Cryptography, the mathematical science of encrypting and decrypting information, intrigued Masterson because the mathematically based subject matter could be studied through computer science. And, he noted with a smile, “it’s practical.” Think Internet commerce, think infrastructures in society (such as health care), and the uses for cryptography become very visible as critical, integrated, and yes, practical applications for computer science and Masterson’s major.

“This was a new field for me,” noted Plaut. “Andrew truly taught himself cryptography. He used textbooks that I recommended and sought web sites and technical papers from other cryptographers.”

Senior Studies are known for allowing students the time and focus to take their academic passion and follow it to an end of their own, often original, discovery. “I discovered what a really big field cryptography is,” Masterson reflected. “It’s much too vast to cover in two semesters of Senior Study.” To narrow the study to an effective conclusion, Masterson reviewed the standard cryptographic algorithm that has been in use for the past 30 years. After making a detailed study of the current standard, Masterson implemented the standard algorithm. He then wrote his own cryptographic algorithm and implemented it, focusing on how the algorithm would be disguised and then running an implementation to show exactly how it would work. Now that’s original.

And originality was one of the aspects of Masterson’s study that made it stand out from others Plaut has guided. “I recommended Andrew’s study to be recognized by ACE because he selected a subject that was new to him (and me) and was very challenging. He approached this subject in a very organized fashion, conducting background research and teaching himself what he needed to do. He not only created an algorithm, but he implemented it and attempted to advance the field of cryptography with his own creative work. He then composed a well-written and thorough study.”

Masterson picked up Plaut’s sentence to explain his thought process with the study, “Dr. Plaut always told me the way to tell if I understood material was to ask myself, ‘Can I write about this?’ This was the process that helped me get a really deep understanding of the material.”

“If a student is having trouble in his or her Senior Study and the advisor isn’t a lot of help, there exists the risk of floundering,” warned Plaut. “Fortunately, Andrew was able to do debugging by himself. This was certainly an example of how the MC faculty also benefit from the Senior Study process because we get to learn, too. It’s a mutual learning experience, which is incredibly exciting and rewarding for everyone involved.”

When asked about the process of his Senior Study, Andrew Masterson again turned reflective, not an unusual state-of-mind for a young man about to graduate from college. “It’s interesting to see how much you can really learn on your own. Classroom experiences have been great, but it is really gratifying to do your own research and to learn on your own. When I think back about what I know about cryptography when I started and what I know now, it is incredibly rewarding.”

“I second that,” said Plaut. “In this process, students learn that they can go out on their own and learn on their own.”

Seeing the advisor and student together in their meeting space in Sutton Science Center, it is obvious the two have worked long and hard together and established a collegial relationship enjoyed and respected by both.

“Andrew has been offered a graduate teaching assistantship at the University of Tennessee in computer science for this fall,” reported Plaut.

“I haven’t decided upon my concentration yet,” noted Masterson, “but I would certainly consider getting into the cryptography field now.”