The changing geopolitical landscape and relentless acceleration of technological innovation are creating an undeniable demand for defense sector innovation and talent. 

Virginia Tech Vice President for Research and Innovation Dan Sui recently shared with the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors that the university has risen to the challenge with the launch of the Virginia Tech National Security Institute.

“The National Security Institute epitomizes how our research institutes serve all aspects of our tripartite mission of education, research, and service,” said Sui. “And, we have a tremendous leader to take this work to the next level.” 

In September, Eric Paterson was appointed executive director of the Virginia Tech National Security Institute when the university announced its formation.

“Virginia Tech is uniquely positioned to mobilize expertise to address complex problems because of our robust experiential learning programs, transdisciplinary faculty working with our students, and facilities both in Blacksburg and the Washington D.C. metro area that include satellite tracking capabilities, specialized computing systems, telescopes, and much more,” said Paterson, who served as interim executive director for the Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology for two years and led the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering as department head for almost a decade. 

“The institute is a deliberate investment to advance the university objectives for growth and excellence,” Paterson said.

As one of the nation’s six Senior Military Colleges, Virginia Tech has strong connections to national security research and curriculum spanning multiple colleges and departments, the Hume Center, and the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation (VT-ARC). 

The university has been working in national security research for decades. Since fiscal year 2010, beginning with a $5 million endowment from Ted Hume, national security research expenditures have steadily increased and research in this area has become more intentional and focused. Part of future growth will be in expanding tenure-track faculty in this area of research across more colleges, explained Paterson.

Currently, spanning six of the nine Virginia Tech colleges are numerous experiential learning projects engaging close to 1,000 graduate and undergraduate students focused on national security including autonomous drone racing, Russian disinformation, diplomacy lab, natural language processing research, development of a space camera for UV spectroscopy, and security in coastal zones.

“Prior to coming to Virginia Tech, I was a marine for 12 years in active duty, so the interest in national security is near and dear to my heart,” said J.B. Persons, doctoral student in computer engineering and Hume graduate research assistant who shared his experiences with the BOV. “The first project I worked on with radio frequency and machine learning led me to be able to better figure out what I wanted to do next and what curriculum was important to obtain the education I needed to solve real problems. These were problems I had faced in the field that needed a solution.”

In addition to providing experiential learning and education, Paterson shared that the mission of the institute is also to perform interdisciplinary research and development, solve challenges in national security by strengthening technology, standards, public policy, and the national security workforce. Partnering with other institutions, industry, and government sponsors will only strengthen the outcomes, he said.

The mission — combined with the vision of the institute to become the nation’s preeminent academic organization for integrated research and development, and experiential learning to advance national security — will provide Virginia Tech with an opportunity to reconceptualize national security as a collective response to diverse, interacting physical and social hazards, which have traditionally been studied from siloed disciplinary perspectives.

Laura Freeman, director of the Intelligent Systems Division for the National Security Institute shared how the translational nature of the research projects associated with the Institute directly improves security for the commonwealth and the country by  exposing students to how their work directly impacts real-world challenges. 

“Everyone wants to use AI to support decision making, which is why we need research in AI adoption techniques. Teaching students how their work supports subjective decisions is an important part of the hands-on experience,” said Freeman, who also directs Information Science and Analytics for VT-ARC and is a research associate professor in the statistics department in the College of Science. “It is also critical that students are getting direct contact with sponsors — it prepares them for future careers. And, that is part of the work we do and have been doing for years.”

Now, with the institute in place, we can better work towards expanding the work with more students and faculty at scale. With a variety of perspectives at the table, we can tackle different types of projects. We need to set the standard by solving national security problems in transdisciplinary teams,” Freeman said.

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