Regina E. Dugan
Class of 1984, BS; Class of 1985, MS
At nine, Regina Dugan’s fight was clear. She underwent three major surgeries and more than two years of chemotherapy to beat cancer. She says it forged her spirit. “That was a very hot fire, early in my life,” described Dugan. “It made me stronger, and it changed how I think about risk, living boldly, and fear of failure.”
The years since serve as an illustration of this philosophy. Her current resume now includes the first female to serve as the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a government agency with a $3 billion annual budget that she portrayed as “full of dreamers with V-8 engines.”
When Dugan was the DARPA director from July of 2009 until March of 2012, one writer characterized her as “wicked smart” although the New York City native laughingly said she prefers the term “wicked determined.”
In a New York Times’ article, another journalist spoke of a colleague’s impression on how to prepare for an encounter with Dugan: “There are four stages of Regina Dugan when trying to meet her insistence on thinking in new ways: being a little scared, really scared, frustrated, and then enlightened.”
Dugan admitted she likes to live “with an intensity. I aim to live without regret. But intensity has many facets… I am comfortable in both fast-paced technology development and in quiet moments, with a beautiful piece of music, or a meal well-cooked and shared.” One of her favorite poems is by Kahlil Gibran, “Joy and Sorrow.”
The first member of her family to become an engineer, Dugan credited her parents with instilling the idea that she had limitless opportunities. Often the only woman in a classroom or working on a team project, Dugan said the minority status did not intimidate her, and instead helped lead to her strong belief in the power of “cognitive diversity.”
She was accepted into Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering at a time when the female population hovered around 16 percent. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (ME) in 1984. A year later, she earned her master’s degree, advised by the ME icon J.B. Jones. And she left Virginia Tech for NASA. Why did she opt to join the space agency? “Because it was NASA,” she answered with a slight incredibility at the question.
While working at the home of the astronaut training site, she developed a system for venting gas from a space liquid storage tank and what became her first of several patents.
Her curiosity and sense of adventure led her West to study for her Ph.D. at Caltech. It also meant getting there via the Arctic circle. A 16,000 mile, three-month journey with friends in two Volkswagen camper buses – from Houston through British Columbia, the Yukon, across Alaska, to the Arctic circle, fishing during the salmon run in Valdez, and down the West Coast to Caltech. That was a ground-based adventure.
While a graduate student, her sense of discovery extended beyond her study of fluid mechanics to flying – not fixed wing aircraft – rotary wing. While in California, she learned to fly a helicopter and after numerous lessons, she was ready for her first solo. Scheduled for an early Saturday morning, the nonchalant instructor simply left the keys under the seat. Her petite physique forced her to carry 50 pounds of sandbags as additional ballast to meet the minimum weight requirements for autorotation. “It certainly made the pre-flight amusing,” she said. She soloed safely, and landed as she started, on a quiet tarmac – a tad anticlimactic for a first solo flight.
Two years after she received her doctorate in ME from Cal Tech, she and Jones co-authored “Engineering Thermodynamics.”
And graduation from Cal Tech sent her back East to a position as a research staff member at a think tank in D.C. It was the job “everyone told me not to take,” she smiled. “I had discovered that technical training meant that I looked at problems through a certain lens. I felt the need to use those skills in service. As I thought about my options one Saturday morning, I let go of the calculus and simply asked myself … ‘which job would you get up and go to right now? On a Saturday morning? Take that job.’” And she did.
After three years at the think tank, she took a position with DARPA in 1996 as a program manager. Founded in 1958 as a response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, DARPA is the principal agency within the Department of Defense for research, development, and demonstration of high-risk, high-payoff capabilities for the current and future combat forces. For the next four years, she directed an interdisciplinary team of some 100 researchers of wide-ranging interests, primarily in the creation of several revolutionary technologies for the development of new trace chemical sensors that would detect the explosives in buried landmines.
Science magazine published an article about Dugan and the accomplishments of her program; the article had an unusual title: “Pentagon Agency Thrives on In-Your-Face Science.”
This program took her to war-torn countries such as Mozambique and Bosnia. “It is important to me to experience something,” Dugan said. “You learn different things about a problem when you live it; you understand it in a different way. It becomes deeply personal … and people trust you in a different way.” This belief in “living” a problem meant that she wasn’t content to be an idle spectator, she drove mine-protected vehicles through live mine fields in Mozambique, and, while the DARPA Director, she traveled to Afghanistan five times. She goes where the problem is, so as to understand it viscerally.
The agency named her the 1999 DARPA Program Manager of the Year. A few months later she received the Army’s Bronze deFleury Medal. The citation reads, “through strength of will, she carried disheartened experimenters past points of discouragement and led them to solve seemingly impossible problems. In the highest leadership traditions, she acted as coach, mentor, cheerleader, and taskmaster to achieve the program goals.”
She also led a counterterrorism task force in 1999, and from 2001 until 2003, she was a special adviser to the Army’s vice chief of staff, completing a “Quick Reaction Study on Countermine” for Operation Enduring Freedom. These accomplishments also led to her selection for an Exceptional Service and Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
After leaving DARPA in 2001, she pursued an entrepreneurial track co-founding Dugan Ventures, a niche investment firm, where she served as president and CEO. The firm invested in ideas that were interdisciplinary, early technology opportunities with global implications. In this capacity, she served as senior executive in several commercial companies with diverse products ranging from pharmaceutical to electromagnetic sensing.
In 2009, Dugan was sworn in as the 19th director of DARPA, its first female director and she brought her interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial ideas back to DARPA. Early on, she spoke to the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities of the House Armed Services Committee. She shared her thoughts about DARPA needing “the minds of the basic scientist and the application engineer, those in universities, and those in industry. And we need them working together, often on a single project, in the cauldron created by the urgency and the technical demands of defense.”
A New York Times article written by John Markoff described her as having a “knack for inspiring, and indeed insisting on, creative thinking.” Under her tenure, then Deputy Secretary of Defense, William J. Lynn, III credited Dugan as “writing the history of advanced manufacturing in the Defense Department among the greats, famous inventor Eli Whitney and former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine.”
Under her leadership, DARPA significantly advanced new manufacturing efforts based on a belief that “to innovate, we must make;” new cybersecurity programs including significant outreach to the “white hat” hacker community; new social media principles, theories and demonstrations; as well as significant contributions to immediate battlefield concerns. DARPA was awarded the Joint Meritorious Unit Award by the Secretary of Defense on September 11, 2012 for its efforts in Afghanistan during her tenure.
Her early-forged beliefs were evident in her discussions at D9 with Walter Mossberg, information technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal. When asked if DARPA was successful because she encouraged people to fail, she disagreed. “I have never encouraged anyone to fail. We don’t encourage failure; we discourage fear of failure.” She said, "Failure isn’t the problem, it’s the fear of failure.”
And in her 2012 TED Talk, she explained more about this philosophy, saying, “Since we took to the sky, we have wanted to fly faster and farther. And to do so, we’ve had to believe in impossible things and we’ve had to refuse to fear failure … when you remove the fear of failure, impossible things become possible.”
Post Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility in 2012, Dugan agreed to form and lead the Advanced Technology and Projects group, the skunkworks-inspired team delivering breakthrough innovations to Motorola Mobility.
Dugan is widely recognized for her leadership in innovation and technology development and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Prism, Forbes, Fast Company and Science News, among others; and has delivered keynote remarks at events as diverse as TED, All Things Digital (D9), and FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit. In 2011, she was named a Tech Titan by Washingtonian Magazine.
Class of: 1984, 1985
Year Inducted into Academy: 2013