And then DARPA appeared…
DARPA and I go way back. Right after I got out of the military back to be exact. Not that more than one or two people even know my name (and probably only vaguely), but DARPA is the reason I’m where I am today, even if the people who helped me get here don’t remember me. As much as I love the DARPA origin story, that’s all it’s ever been, that is until today, when school-PI let me know that DARPA was paying attention.
Imagine I’m a young(ish) Marine who was just discharged because he was broken. It’s a sad story, mostly because I didn’t plan on what the heck I would do when I got out, much less a future outside of the military. I’m not sure I would still be there, but maybe. Point being, I went through a very serious set of life changes and the military didn’t exactly care that I had nowhere to go. Getting back on my feet took some time, obviously, but when I did I finally had a second to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. School felt like a good option, but I had no idea where to start, much less how to get where I wanted to be. So I did what any idiot kid would do, I called a person in the position I wanted one day.
I alluded to that phone call in my recent interview (here) when I said I got pointed to USC by someone at DARPA’s advancing prosthetics project. Now I said someone for brevity, but I wouldn’t forget anyone who helped me out, much less him, Colonel Geoffrey Ling, probably just Dr. Ling these days, I was told no one really calls him that anymore. Again, dumb kid, just out of the military, I Googled prosthetics and military, DARPA’s advancing prosthetics program came up and he was the one leading it. There was a phone number, so I gave him a call.
Sadly he didn’t answer, but would you believe he called back? Turns out he has a soft spot for veterans and took time out of his extremely busy life to return a call to someone he had never met. Well that call put me on the trajectory I’m on today. His advice gave me a fairly clear path from where I was (not even in undergrad at that point) to where I am now. It’s been more rocky and winding than I had first envisioned, but hey, I made it so no complaints from me. And if I’m being honest, none of that would’ve happened if he hadn’t returned my phone call. I literally had no idea what I was doing and school wasn’t even really on my radar because high school was HELL, seriously. After our talk I did what I needed to do to enroll fall of that year.
While it’s been roughly 15 years since that phone call, his guidance has always been appreciated and I like telling this story to just about anyone who asks how I got here. In fact, a few years ago when I was a student coordinator for a neurotech workshop (here) I got to tell that story to a few people who work with Dr. Ling and they all agree that sounds like something he would do, so I’m glad there are people in positions of power who are willing to help out people just getting started. It literally changed my life and it wasn’t even a super long call.
Fifteen years. It doesn’t feel that long in a lot of ways and in some it feels a lot longer. When I first got started DARPA was the dream. I could work closely to help veterans while having enough funding to do so, I mean it’s the government, they always throw money at military related research. I’ve somewhat moved away from that goal, but not really. As much as I am not a fan of war, or really the military and the way they treat people or behave in general, I don’t think I would mind working for DARPA still. It would put me closer to veterans and that was the reason I wanted into the field in the first place. Obviously I have mixed feelings about DARPA and the way we help the civilian population is through making better ways to kill people and to keep people in the field to kill people.
Don’t get me wrong I think the idea behind a lot of the work DARPA does is great and I don’t think prosthetic technology will be making its way into the battlefield (at least not in my lifetime… probably), but there is that stigma that comes along with it. Basically I’m not sure DARPA is the end goal for me anymore, but I still have a special place in my heart for some of the people who work there. If the world were in a better place, maybe, but it would have to be for a project that wasn’t military focused and more rehabilitative.
Fifteen years, heck maybe longer. Aside from the conference and the two contacts from DARPA that I’ve made, I have lived my life, DARPA has done its thing and the two of us never really connected the same way we did when I made that call. Until today that is…
School-PI sent me an innocuous sounding email asking me if I was interested and he had forwarded me a conversation he was having. Slowly as I read, pieces starting clicking into place. The person emailing was from DARPA. Apparently they noticed that recent article about me and I’ve been nominated for the DARPA Risers program. It’s more of a meet and greet from the sounds of things, but it gives me a forum to discuss my work with people from DARPA who may be interested.
It’s also a type of award, I’ll be the “2022 DARPA Risers class” which consists of (from what I can find on it) roughly 50 people nationwide. I’m not sure if that’s accurate though since the internet is failing me and returning articles from 2018 or so when the (first?) event was held. I’m still trying to figure out what it all means and why they would be interested in me, but wow…
I’m still in a bit of shock and they need my CV along with my abstract for the conference or whatever we want to call it, but I’m surprised anything I did would attract that kind of attention. In some ways, I’m hoping it will give me a chance to run into Dr. Ling and thank him, although he’s no longer with the advancing prosthetics project, he still works for DARPA, so it could actually be a possibility. Obviously I’m going to say yes and hope for the best. The conference runs smack in the middle of SfN, which is sad, but I mean when would I get a chance like this?!
Yes, this is another post celebrating me. Strangely this one I’m more okay with. Despite my complicated feelings about DARPA (and the military), I owe them (well Dr. Ling) a lot. Even if I’m not remembered.