Meet the Scientists: Dr. Vincent Tang

Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, and research and development: the greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time. If you know someone who should be featured, email us.

By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Vincent Tang, a physicist in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, pioneered the SIGMA program — a first-of-its-kind network of advanced mobile and stationary sensors for 24/7 monitoring of nuclear and radiological threats. DoD photo

WHO: Vincent Tang, Ph.D., joined the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a program manager in the Defense Sciences Office in 2013. His interests primarily involve the development of new technologies for countering weapons of mass destruction. His work at DARPA has involved the creation and operationalization of the SIGMA system for ubiquitous monitoring of nuclear and radiological threats, intense and compact neutron sources for portable radiography, and hybrid digital and analog computing architectures for scientific computing.

Tang was named Program Manager of the Year in 2016 and a finalist for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in 2017.

Before he came to DARPA, Tang worked as a staff physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. There, he developed advanced accelerator and plasma-based radiation sources for national security applications, like the detection of illicit materials.

Tang received a doctorate in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also holds a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and dual bachelor’s degrees in nuclear and chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

He’s a pretty smart guy, right? We wanted to dig a little deeper into his mission and what he’s working on.

MISSION: As a program manager at DARPA, our mission is to create and lead programs that prevent strategic technological surprise.

Tell us about your technology/science.
TANG: Over the last few years, I have primarily been concentrated on creating and operationalizing very large sensor networks made up of thousands of mobile and static radiation detectors that can automatically discriminate between benign and dangerous sources of radiation.

What do you hope this will achieve?
The goal of this technology is to enable continuous and practical city-to-region scale monitoring in order to deter and prevent nuclear and radiological — i.e. dirty bomb — terror attacks.

What makes these sensor networks so significant?
High-consequence but low-probability weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass terror attacks have the potential to cause foundational disruption and damage to the United States and our allies. Sustainable technologies and systems that are effective at preventing these attacks can play a large role in minimizing these threats.

How could you use this science to aid the military or help with military missions?
The technologies and systems we developed can also be deployed with our troops overseas to provide early warning and WMD detection capabilities.

Vincent Tang briefs then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter about the capabilities of the SIGMA system during DARPA’s “Wait, What?” technology forum in St. Louis, Sept. 9, 2015. DoD photo by Sun L. Vega

What’s the most beneficial aspect of this science?
We have created a continuously reporting, real-time networked and distributed spectroscopic sensor system that can scale to cover and protect very wide areas. The technologies we developed might also be leveraged for other threats in the chemical and biological arenas.

When do you expect these sensors will be ready for use?
We have been working with our partners in the Department of Homeland Security, DoD, and state and local operators since the conception of the program, and are currently transitioning the system to operational status.

What got you interested in this field of study?
I was excited to address a very difficult national security challenge and to work on these multidisciplinary sensor networks.

Are you working on any other projects right now?
I am interested in how these physical sensor networks could also be applied for chemical and biological threats, as well as the interplay of these networks with other novel methods and better adversary modeling to further transform our ability to deter and prevent WMT/WMD attacks.

We love to share tips from scientists here. So, what’s your best advice for budding scientists?
Read broadly. Understand, and be able to communicate, the potential impact of your work to a wide audience. Learn and exercise your ability to do simple back-of-the envelope models and calculations that cover the key features of a system.

Last question, if you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?
December 2, 1942, University of Chicago, the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. The success of this experiment enabled, for better or worse, all the possibilities of nuclear energy.

Our thanks to Vincent Tang for contributing to this article and congratulations to him for being named a 2017 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalist in the National Security and International Affairs category.

RELATED LINKS: DARPA Successfully Tests Radiation Detectors in Nation’s Capital
Advanced Radioactive Threat Detection System Completes First Large-Scale Citywide Test
Ushering in a New Generation of Low-Cost, Networked, Nuclear-Radiation Detectors

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