When DARPA calls
Fifteen years. It’s been roughly fifteen years since I started this journey and the dream was always the same. We all have stupid dreams as a kid, we want to be astronauts and sports stars, but the odds aren’t in our favor. We’re told to be realistic. Sorry kid, your dreams are too big. You need to shrink yourself to fit into the tiny box we as a society provide you. I was never good at following instructions, so maybe that’s why the past fifteen years have been a special kind of hell, but today, today made it all worth it.
We only get the one life. So if I were to write out all the horrors I’ve endured over the years, it would feel overwhelming to me, but I have no point of reference for how easy life should be, but my own experience. I never planned to leave the military and in an alternate universe somewhere I’m still there doing my thing. I have mixed feelings about the military, government, and very firm feelings regarding war, but for the past fifteen years the dream was DARPA and today DARPA noticed me.
Let’s rewind a bit. When I got out of the service I was broken and being broken meant I was no good to my country and was forced out. I was a young, dumb, kid who had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, much less how to get to that whole adulthood career thing people always talk about. I knew I wanted to help my fellow service members, people who were hurt worse than I was, but I had no idea how. Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to build robots, so prosthetics was an easy and comfortable jump. So being a dumb kid, I did something incredibly stupid.
I went on that whole internet thing that had grown significantly since I had joined, looked up what military agencies were doing prosthetics research and found DARPA’s “Revolutionizing Prostheses” initiative. Then I looked for the person running the project and without giving it a second thought I called him. Seriously. I cold called the head of a DARPA project. Like I said I was a dumb kid. Obviously he was busy and didn’t answer my call, but again being dumb I left a message anyway and if it were anyone else I probably wouldn’t be typing this right now because I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself.
But he called me back.
The conversation was admittedly short, but he gave me a path. From that day forward, I’ve been on a singular mission to improve prosthetics and work with DARPA. Obviously as I’ve gotten older, my feelings towards the whole military industrial complex have evolved, but call me sentimental, I feel like I owe them, or at least Dr. Ling, who told me exactly what I could do to get where I wanted to be. It worked out, but I cringe at the thought of doing something like that today. I should point out one more time that I was dumb, very, very dumb. Which is probably why it worked out in my favor, who the hell would pick up the phone and call someone like that?
Since that phone call, which he’s probably long forgotten, I’ve: tried to kill myself, been homeless, spent cumulatively weeks (possibly months) in mental hospitals, had roughly a dozen surgeries, and have struggled to just live. It’s been a hard life, but that pretty much brings us back to today. Or rather a month ago when I got an email from school-PI asking me if I wanted to apply to a thing called DARPA risers (here). I actually tell this story there too, so a bit redundant, but I think it’s important to tell it because it’s just unbelievable except to the people who know Dr. Ling and they tell me it’s exactly the kind of thing he would do.
For about almost a month exactly I’ve been sitting here dreading the email telling me, ” hey it’s not you, it’s us.” You know, the one that starts off very kind, but about half way through they tell you, oops sorry we don’t want you? Well I didn’t get that email, because I WAS SELECTED!
That’s right, fifteen years later and DARPA called, or rather emailed me saying I was selected for the DARPA Risers class of 2022. As an aside, I found out about this roughly two hours ago and since then I’ve laughed until I cried, cried until I started laughing, paced around the room like a madman, and hugged my cats. It’s been an emotional few hours.
I don’t know how many nominations there were, but I do know that only “up to” (quoting directly the award letter) 30 people were selected including me. That makes this incredibly competitive considering the pool is every grad student in the US as far as I’m aware. I mean, me? Really? I’m not going to question it too hard, because I don’t want to bring attention to the fact that there are far better people for this, but I mean, come on… me?
DARPA Risers, since I had no clue what it was prior to getting the nomination, is a program for early career researchers (e.g., graduate students) to meet with the program managers of DARPA in person. It’s a way to get people to notice you who are in charge of throwing money at projects. Basically it’s a chance to see what it would be like to work with DARPA, which again has been a dream for the past fifteen years or so, so it feels a little surreal to be at this point. I also get to work with the person who nominated me, since they will be my mentor for this.
Another side note, this wouldn’t have been possible without all of you! Your support has been the best thing to ever happen. Even if you’re just a semi-regular reader, it means the world to me to know that people actually care about the things I have to say. The last few years wouldn’t have been possible without all of you, so thank you.
Which brings me to the point of the post and it has almost nothing to do with DARPA and everything to do with your dreams. I’ve always felt awkward because I don’t like to dream small. I prefer to dream as big as I can and hope that I can reach those dreams. I blame the childhood I never had, I’m a big kid frankly and it’s worked for me because somewhere along the lines we stop dreaming big and I missed that memo. So my advice to anyone reading this is simple, dream bigger. Dream so big it makes the people around you uncomfortable. Dream so big people beg you to stop because you’ll never make it. Because what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? You fail? Well you’re no worse off than you were before.
Now let me ask you, what if you succeed?