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Innovative research brings intelligence leader to ASU

IARPA Director Peter Highnam visits ASU
October 28, 2013

A broad range of innovative interdisciplinary research brought Peter Highnam, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), to Arizona State University recently.

In addition to meeting with ASU President Michael Crow and Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan, senior vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development, Highnam visited several labs and centers on the Tempe campus, observing how ASU researchers have taken a different approach to addressing societal challenges.

“ASU researchers are conducting cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary research projects that span a variety of areas that IARPA is looking to address,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan. “Having Dr. Highnam visit ASU to see firsthand the incredible work of our faculty and students speaks volumes about the university’s capabilities and extensive range of challenges we are looking to tackle that align with IARPA’s mission.”

Highnam joined IARPA in February 2009 and has served as director since August 2012. He was previously a senior advisor in the National Institutes of Health and a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he managed programs in electronic warfare and airborne communications. Highnam has been recognized with both a Department of Defense Civilian Exceptional Service Award and a Distinguished Service Award from the Department of Health and Human Services. He is a co-inventor on three patents in commercial seismic exploration and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a doctorate in computer science.

With more than a decade of experience working in applied research in industry, Highnam recognizes the value of use-inspired research, which is a top priority for ASU.

During his visit, Highnam gave an overview to a group of faculty, administrators and staff of IARPA’s mission to invest in high-risk, high-payoff research, how they’re always looking for good ideas and program managers, and how to engage in IARPA-funded research. He also caught a glimpse of some of the depth and breadth of ASU’s most cutting-edge interdisciplinary projects.

“The nature of what we do includes looking ahead with little regard of discipline, but focusing on what it takes to get where we want to go,” said Highnam during his remarks to ASU faculty, administrators and staff.

Highnam met with a number of researchers and administrators during his visit from a broad range of disciplines. These included experts in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, College of Public Programs, Global Institute of Sustainability, LightWorks Initiative and a number of center and consortium directors.

During these series of meetings, multiple topics were discussed that cover a wide span of issues relevant to IARPA’s mission, including our dual commitment to using imaginative thinking and incorporating expertise from diverse and multi-disciplinary areas to solve complex problems.

In discussing the need for focusing on imaginative and measurable outcomes to future-focused solutions, Highnam explained that “there are people who are really good at writing textbooks that focus on the past, but what we want (at IARPA) are people who invent pieces for the future.”  

This view clearly resonates with ASU’s mission to conduct use-inspired and transdisciplinary research through innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, and the importance of collaboration with organizations such as IARPA to help solve society’s grandest challenges.

During his visit, Highnam identified a few connection points between ASU researchers and IARPA program managers, and highlighted the process for engaging with IARPA. Based on Highnam's recommendations, ASU plans to follow up on a wide range of topic areas from immunosignaturing and biological sensing and signal processing to analysis of science fiction and its implications on emerging technology.