Bolka thinks big

When David Bolka was 12, his father sat him down and gave him a dose of cold, hard reality.

"I can't afford to give you any more money for the rest of your life," Bolka's father told him.

The message was harsh even for a young boy growing up in northern Minnesota, where winters are bitterly cold and dark. But it was the best thing his father ever did for him, said Bolka, the new director at the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), the external research arm of the Homeland Security Department.

His father's philosophy forced Bolka to forge ahead on his own, working in local mines during the summer to earn money, winning a scholarship to college, joining the Navy and obtaining a doctorate in engineering acoustics.

The result was that he was able to figure out just how to clear the brush from the path he wanted to take.

The road has led him to many interesting places from his hometown of Tower-Soudan, Minn., where his high school graduating class included 33 students and he was among three National Merit finalists.

He served on destroyers and submarines, once spending 67 days on duty underwater. He invented technologies that are still classified by the military.

He worked at Bell Laboratories, where he led scientific work in noise and vibration control, and in the Wireless Network Group at Lucent Technologies, where he directed network testing worldwide.

"You can tell when you talk to him; you just know he's smart," said his friend Carl Culler, chief financial officer at Holland & Knight LLP. "He's definitely one of those. But he's not one of those who want you to know it. His ego doesn't get in the way."

Now Bolka will have a chance to draw on his experience as director of HSARPA, where he faces the urgency to develop technologies to fight terrorism.

"HSARPA is tasked to reach out to industry looking for industry solutions," he said.

For this scientist, inventor and thinker, leading the agency designed to find new ideas and grow them is a natural place for Bolka to be.

"We're the technologists," he said.

HSARPA has a similar name to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which aims to nurture ideas for improving defense.

But the similarity ends there. Unlike DARPA, Bolka said, HSARPA will use most of its budget to quickly find the next generation of anti-terrorism technology.

As an example, he points to HSARPA's first solicitation for biological and chemical countermeasures. Finding new ways to monitor for such attacks will require "innovative thinking and partnerships among a wide variety of commercial businesses, laboratories and academic institutions," he said.

Ideas can come from anywhere — big companies or small ones, intellectual property developed by an individual or the kernel of an idea that still needs to be flushed out.

Some work will be developed by national laboratories such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California or as part of government contracting vehicles, he said.

"Bolka is extraordinarily innovative. He uses the innovation based on fundamental scientific and technological principles. And it will stand him in good stead in his new job," said Les Kleinberg, who worked with him at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.

With plenty of money to spend and the urgency to fight terrorism, there is no lack of energy at HSARPA.

"We can anticipate the answer," Bolka said. "What are the real questions? We have no way of knowing."

The David Bolka file

Age: 63.

Personal: Married to Carol, an emergency room nurse. They have two grown children. In his spare time, he likes to refurbish old houses. He and Carol have renovated three so far.

Military background: Joined the Navy in 1960. Served as a Naval Sea Systems Command (Navsea) project manager for submarine and surface ship sonar and combat control development, production and support, and for advanced development projects with the British Royal Navy and the French Navy. From 1980-1983, served as U.S. Navy technical liaison officer to the Ship Department and assistant naval attache to the United Kingdom in Bath, England. From 1983-1986, he served as the major project manager for submarine combat systems at Navsea. He retired with the rank of captain in 1986.

Work background: Joined Bell Laboratories in 1988 working in noise and vibration control. From 1996-1999, worked for Lucent Technologies' Wireless Networks Group in a variety of scientific and technical management positions.

Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in marine geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in engineering acoustics from Pennsylvania State University.

Last book read: "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War" by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad.

2014 Rising Star Awards

Help us find the next generation of leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above