The science of security

When Jane "Xan" Alexander was deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, she played a game of free association to help scientists figure out what could be developed out of thin air.

Suppose the rules of physics didn't apply and you could create anything you wanted, she told her staff at a retreat. Come up with an invention that would change the way the world works.

Out of that exercise came lots of improbable ideas, such as tapping tree sap for fuel or putting plastic strips into a moving stream to capture the turbulence for energy, Alexander said. But more importantly, that exercise helped scientists develop new ways of thinking about old problems.

Now deputy director of the new Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), which will fund cutting-edge research, she is ready to encourage out-of-the-box ideas and turn them into reality for national security.

But make no mistake about it, Alexander said. "No technologies are 100 percent perfect."

Although developing technologies is difficult, her toughest issue is establishing priorities. Should they be protecting the Internet or physical assets? Fighting bioterrorism or dealing with hack attacks against the nation's infrastructure?

With a proposed fiscal 2004 budget of $800 million, HSARPA officials have plenty of chances to experiment but no time to make mistakes as they seek answers to the nation's security problems.

"Each region and city in the country has different vulnerabilities," Alexander said. "They also have different resources. In some towns, the firefighters and police can't talk to each other. We know that. And we don't want to impose a single federal solution."

Alexander is weighing all those issues as she hires a staff of program managers, analysts, scientists and scholars who will each bring a different expertise to the agency. She said she is looking for people with a diversity of life experiences and talents because "we all have our blind spots."

Most of the people Alexander would like to hire already have jobs; the trick is to encourage them to try something different. So far, she's hired six people, and she is looking for more: experts with track records at small and large companies and experiences at places such as the Pentagon and Energy Department.

Alexander's work as a physicist, scientist and nurturer of new ideas leaves her well-positioned to be the deputy director of a research agency charged with developing technologies to fight the 21st century's threats at home.

At a recent gathering sponsored by the Information Technology Association of America in California, she said the biggest difference between DARPA and HSARPA is the time frame, according to the association's president, Harris Miller.

"With DARPA, it was almost required that money they spent had to be for things with a long-term path," Miller said. "With HSARPA, the mission is more immediate and on a much shorter time frame. She made it clear she is looking for projects that pay off in six to 12 months," Miller said.

Anthony Tether, DARPA's director, said Alexander was a remarkable colleague. Although her expertise was in physics, she became an expert on bioterrorism for the agency long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks heightened the possibility that enemies of the United States might use biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. "It was all put together by her, and she did an excellent job," Tether said.

But even a brainy scientist has her weaknesses. Alexander's is remembering what hand beats out another in poker. Tether recalled that she always had to write down whether two pairs of eights beat one pair of tens, and "you could see her trying to figure it out."

Alexander, 45, knows exactly where she is going. A second-generation scientist, she has a great role model in her mother, Nancy Jane, a mathematician and computer scientist who helped develop the A-bomb at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Alexander brings to her job an illustrious academic background from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. As a Ph.D. candidate in physics at MIT, her thesis was on superconductivity, an area so specialized she just laughs when asked to explain it.

Alexander also has practical experience. At the Office of Naval Research, she was executive director for science and technology. But first she was DARPA's deputy director, responsible for managing the agency's high-payoff, innovative research and development projects.

Although DARPA's research budget was $2.5 billion a year, she recalled, "when I was at DARPA, we had many more good ideas than money."

She has always been focused, her friends and colleagues say. But now she is like a laser heading straight for the target. Now her mandate is clear: Find the ideas, develop them and make them work.

***

The Jane Alexander file

Personal: Alexander, "Xan" for short, is 45.

Education: Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; B.S. in physics from Stanford University.

Awards: Received the Arthur S. Flemming award honoring the top 10 federal employees under age 40 in 1994. In 1998, received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service. In 2001, received the Defense Department's Distinguished Medal for Civilian Service.

Hobbies: Likes to travel. Has repeatedly postponed a trip to Utah because of work. She used to read science fiction, but she has become a fan of mysteries.

The 2014 Federal 100

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