A mathematician from the start
Engineering fellow uses machine learning to help stop next big hack
It adds up that Dr. Nandi Leslie became a mathematician.
During her childhood in Evanston, Illinois, her father – a full professor of mathematics at Northwestern University – enrolled her in the university’s math programs. She would tag along with him to math conferences, workshops and speeches around the country.
“On school nights when I was growing up, there was no TV and no hanging out,” said Leslie, a Raytheon Intelligence & Space engineering fellow who holds a Ph.D. in applied and computational mathematics from Princeton University. “It was homework and studying, because my parents were proponents of us getting a good education. I am one of seven children, and whenever one of us would get bored, our parents would say ‘Pick up a good book.’”
In 2019, Dr. Nandi Leslie became the first African American woman at what was then Raytheon Company to hold the distinction of engineering fellow – the company’s highest technical honor. Only 3% of the company’s engineers achieved it.
“I am very honored and delighted to be selected,” Leslie said. “It’s amazing recognition from my peers, advisers and mentors, who helped me along the way to get there.”
The road to a career in STEM
Leslie’s career nearly took a much different turn. Back when she was a freshman at Howard University, where her father chaired the mathematics department and her mother taught sociology, Leslie was considering majoring in linguistics.
In the end, it was math that drew her in.
“I felt like I was excelling in the coursework; it felt natural and I was good at it,” said Leslie.
Her passion for mathematics grew during the summer between her junior and senior years at Howard, when she participated in an intensive summer research experience at Cornell University – her research project used dynamical systems to model cardiac arrhythmia.
“I discovered this whole world of applied mathematics research,” she said. “I could leverage my math talent to solve real-world problems.”
At Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a business of Raytheon Technologies, Leslie researches the use of machine learning to solve hard problems in cyber resilience.
“Machine learning has many benefits in cybersecurity: monitoring network traffic, anomaly-based intrusion detection and prevention, as well as cyber situational understanding,” she said. Leslie has written more than 50 conference and journal papers and book chapters, to date.
Her previous job was at a mid-sized defense contractor, where she held several roles with customers including the Office of the Secretary of Defense and U.S. Navy.
Before that, she taught mathematics at the University of Maryland College Park, where she was also a post-doctoral researcher. She continues to teach today. She teaches one graduate course per semester in the Applied and Computational Mathematics Program at Johns Hopkins University, where she is also on the research faculty.
“Teaching at the university level is learning,” she said. “I am reinforcing what I have learned over and over again, and constantly refining my knowledge by teaching. Another benefit is that I get to learn from the students, what their interests are, how to effectively address their questions. It’s an interesting, and fun thing to do.”
Since January 2019, she’s also been a visiting professor at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Senegal, Africa. She’s made one trip to Senegal but has mentored students virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The institute is really creating experts for mathematical sciences in Africa,” Leslie said. “I wanted to go and see how much outreach impact that I could make. It’s very rewarding. They have a real desire to learn; they’re exceptional academically and very hard-working.”
Leslie has mentored many graduate and undergraduate students. She believes it’s important for young Americans to have Black role models in STEM fields.
“Seeing is believing,” Leslie said. “You need to see someone who looks like yourself, accomplishing seemingly insurmountable objectives, to believe it’s also possible for you. Moreover, when Americans of any race witness Black women excelling in STEM fields, it helps address and remove both racial and gender biases.”
Support for equity and equal representation in leadership roles has to come from the whole American community, both in technology and other areas, she said.
“It has to come from all of us,” she said. “The more effective people who are willing to lead and incentivized to provide deep insights on our most challenging problems, the better, and that’s regardless of race. Having a diverse and inclusive workforce at Raytheon Technologies will benefit all of us, especially our customers.”