Leaping into Military Culture

October 1, 2006
Best defense: Willett, bottom, and Parr 
Best defense: Willett, bottom, and Parr

Best defense: Willett, bottom, and Parr
bottom:© 2006 Rebecca Willett, top:© 2006 Ron Parr

Standing atop a thirty-four-foot tower on the Fort Bragg Army base in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Rebecca Willett was "terrified" to make her training jump.

"That first step is hard to take," said Willett, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke.

But equipped with parachute gear, a camouflage helmet, and a harness attached to an overhead cable, she made the leap. Suspended from the cable, she zipped down to the landing area.

Her colleague Ron Parr, an assistant professor of computer science, says that his biggest challenge of the day the two spent on the base was getting the milkshake in his Meal-Ready-to-Eat to reconstitute after adding water. The two professors spent a day at Fort Bragg as part of a new Defense Department program that encourages junior computer scientists and electrical engineers to investigate technical challenges faced by the military. The program, called the Computer Science Study Panel (CS2P), has twelve scholars from various universities making summertime visits to military bases and receiving briefings on how the military uses—and hopes to use—information technology.

This year's CS2P participants toured bases from Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, visited military hubs at U.S. Joint Forces Command and U.S. Central Command, and boarded crafts, including the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, the Norfolk nuclear submarine, and a Blackhawk helicopter.

Participating in CS2P also qualifies researchers to apply for a $500,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). (At $14.8 million, DARPA was the third-largest external source of research funds at Duke last year; the university does not handle grants for classified research.)

Parr says the rationale for the program is for academic researchers to gain "an understanding of what these short-term needs are [for the military] and then figure out how the higher-level, more abstract problems that we have could contribute to these short-term needs."

"Most scientists and engineers perform their research not only because it's interesting to them personally, but also because they want to expand our body of scientific knowledge. For me, my research is most exciting when I'm expanding our knowledge in a direction that has a positive impact on society."

Both Willett and Parr say they appreciated the opportunity to be exposed to military technology and culture. "We got to see some pretty cool equipment," Willett says. "But I think the people were most impressive."

Adds Parr, "I didn't realize how fond of PowerPoint they are."