Sixty years ago, the Advanced Research Projects Agency was given the task of staving off surprises.

The Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik, and even amid the heightened vigilance of the cold war, the technological sophistication that crowned the Soviets the first nation in space caught the United States off-guard.

Searching for a way to avoid a reprise, the U.S. trained its focus on science and technology as the raw materials of a robust national-security apparatus: Aggressively pursuing novel ideas and underwriting them as they blossomed into breakthroughs, would allow the country to wield its own technological surprises when necessary and guard against being surprised again.    

To identify and nurture those nascent technologies, the Department of Defense established an agency that was later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and is now commonly known as DARPA.

On Oct. 5, DARPA director Steven Walker will be on campus to share his perspective on how the agency pulls off its ambitious mission and how Virginia Tech can expand its role. 

Walker’s talk, part of the Hugh and Ethel Kelly Lecture Series, will be held at 8:30 a.m. in the Quillen Family Auditorium in Goodwin Hall. Virginia Tech President Tim Sands will introduce the speaker.

DARPA invests strategically in high-risk, high-payoff research initiatives, with a vast portfolio that covers the spectrum of science and engineering, including biology; advanced vehicles for sea, ground, air, and space; information technology; social and behavioral science; and integrated systems.

Walker will give the audience a glimpse into some of the agency’s most innovative projects, from improving gene editing to using single molecules as sensors to building machines that collaborate fluently with humans.

Walker has directed the agency since November 2017, following stints as deputy director and acting director.

His decorated career in public service has spanned more than 30 years. Walker served as the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology, and engineering, overseeing more than 14,000 scientists and engineers and a budget of $2 billion. He has also held key science and technology positions at the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Pentagon.

Walker earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton.

But he has strong connections to Virginia Tech; he’s the father of one current student and one alumnus. 

The Hugh and Ethel Kelly Lecture Series was established in 2013 by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science with funding from the Kelly Gift to the College of Engineering.

Hugh Kelly was a double alumnus of Virginia Tech, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering. He went on to work as a researcher at AT&T’s Bell Labs, where he played key roles in groundbreaking projects, including the 1962 launch of the Telstar communications satellite. Following Kelly’s death in 1989, Ethel Kelly generously supported the College of Engineering as a way of honoring her husband’s legacy. Kelly Hall, which houses the main offices of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, is also named in honor of the couple.

The distinguished speaker series honors the Kellys by bringing visionary thinkers to campus to share their expertise and insight with the Virginia Tech community. Previous speakers include two Nobel Prize winners and a secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution.