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60 Seconds with Alyson Wilson

Meet Alyson Wilson, associate vice chancellor for national security and special research initiatives.

Photograph by Marc Hall ’20 MA.

Alyson Wilson is a statistics professor who works with national laboratories and the NC State Data Science Academy. She’s also principal investigator for the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences.

It sounds like you are NC State’s top spy. Is that a fair description of what you do?

(Laughs.) No. It’s trying to identify ways we can expand our engagement with the defense and security community. That’s helping people identify opportunities to get research funding. That’s working on internship opportunities.

Part of your job is to work on “strategic research development around national defense initiatives.” Any interesting stories you can share?

The coolest part is the growing engagement we have with the 82nd Airborne. For example, we were helping them look at analytics to track sentiment and influence in social media. We’re also working with them on a web-based tool that helps them be more accurate in how they order their ammunition for training activities. Some of these are not that sexy but are incredibly practical.

The Laboratory for Analytic Sciences is a partnership between the university and the National Security Agency. Any interesting projects you can share, or is it all top secret?

Our portfolio, for the most part, is unclassified. One example is in areas of conflict, where the United States has lots of data. Right now, you’ve got soldiers who have to watch all this video to see if they can find something “interesting.” Do I see troop movement? Do I see guys with guns? One of the things we’re looking at is how do you triage really big sets of data — it’s video, it’s audio, it’s text — to find the stuff that might be interesting. Can you teach a computer to decide if something is not interesting? And then how do you make the computer work with the analyst? We do a lot of thinking about problems where we need that human/machine team.

What does the Data Science Academy do?

One of the things the academy is doing is teaching a set of one-credit courses. The idea is that these are not just for computer science and statistics students. We’re recognizing that data science is really impacting every discipline. It’s changing how you do public health. It’s changing how you do history.

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