ISEF opened up new worlds for this alum | Society for Science & the Public
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ISEF opened up new worlds for this alum

April 17, 2016

ISEF 1994 finalist David Bray has held several science-related positions over the years. He's studied various majors, volunteered abroad, worked in IT, journalism, and at the Federal Communications Commission.

David said the sciences are so broad that anyone can find a topic or particular field they enjoy. He encourages students interested in STEM to listen to the ongoing science debates and add to the conversation with their own research.

Participating in ISEF opened new worlds for David, who traveled to South America for other science fairs.


David Bray currently serves as the Chief Information Officer for the Federal Communications Commission, leading FCC's IT Transformation since 2013.
David Bray currently serves as the Chief Information Officer for the Federal Communications Commission, leading FCC's IT Transformation since 2013.

Describe your ISEF experience:

I remember the first time I saw the floor with all the exhibits and feeling a mixture of awe and amazement. It was inspiring to see so many booths on so many different topics. I made a lot of friends at the event too, though it was hard to keep in touch when we all went back to our respective homes. The creative energy that was present at Intel ISEF events is something I have since sought to recreate at work.

After Intel ISEF 1994, I also had the opportunity to travel to South America with two other individuals to their science fair. We flew from Houston to Santiago, Chile and from there to Mendoza, Argentina, which required the plane to do a corkscrew to navigate the mountains and land. I had to translate my poster materials and handouts into Spanish for the presentation. I also had to bring a computer. Back then, that meant shipping a desktop with my luggage via our planes and having them inspected at customs. I also had to find the right power converters and there was one instance where the fuse in my computer blew and that night my new science fair friends helped me find a place that could replace the power supply for a presentation the following morning. Meeting science fair participants from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, and other South American countries was an experience I'll never forget.

I became interested in computers at an early age.

How did you become interested in your project topic?

I completed four different computer simulation projects for Intel ISEF, including ones of: plate tectonics; oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico; fertilizer and other nutrient spill-off into the Chesapeake Bay; and forest fire flame front propagation given wind, foliage, and terrain conditions. Each sought to model the natural dynamics of these events based on first principles, where given historical events that had occurred, the computer could accurately recreate what had happened and provide credibility that it could accurately predict future events as they unfolded.

I became interested in computers at an early age. Back when I was 5, my grandfather purchased a computer for our family. It was an IBM PC with a whopping 128 kilobytes of RAM, 5.25" floppy disks, and 16-color display. In time, I became curious as to how the machine worked, so I started playing around with BASIC, then C, and later Assembly-language programming. I also took the machine apart a couple of times to understand how it worked.

I liked watching systems — whether they were natural systems or systems of human activity — and trying to figure out why they worked. This interest led me to want to create computer simulations of natural systems, recreating in code the physical reality that surrounds us all. Reading Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy, which talks about the possibility of psychohistory — being able to predict the future based on events in the past that trigger a sequence of events — also inspired my research inquiries. In doing the research, I had to balance the complexity of the models with the limits of computational power and memory at the time. For my first effort, I only had 1 megabyte of RAM and an 80286 processor, for the latter efforts I had 8 megabytes of RAM and an 80486 with an added math coprocessor.

Intel ISEF opened up new worlds for me.

How did original research and events like ISEF affect your career trajectory?

ISEF opened up new worlds for me. Back in 1993, partly as a result of my participation in Virginia science fairs in middle school, the U.S. Navy invited me to be an "argonaut" for the JASON Project led by Dr. Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic. We spent 10 days in the Sea of Cortez in March 1993, mapping the deeps and plate tectonic activity, and bringing up specimen from the depths via a device that Dr. Ballard called a slurp gun, a small vacuum attached to the submersible rover. We also televised the research expedition live to students across the U.S. via CNN.

ISEF also connected me to the government. At 15, I started working for a continuous electron beam accelerator facility, helping with different computer simulations of the 4 GeV beam. Later, I worked with the Department of Defense on an IT system to provide telemedicine using satellite connections and to transfer high-resolution X-ray images of remote patients from the Balkans conflict. At age 17, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. William Jeffrey and others at the Institute for Defense Analyses on small satellites, building a computer simulation that used images from orbiting satellites to detect and predict the spread of a forest fire from space.

What are you up to now?

In 2012, I was invited to lead the National Commission for the Review of Research and Development (R&D) Programs of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) as Principal Strategist and Executive Director. I oversaw a team of interagency assignees working with 12 congressionally appointed bipartisan commissioners and across the Executive Branch. I led a team recommending new efforts and reviewing future science and technology plans of the entire IC and its unclassified multibillion budget. In this position, I also met with IC agency heads to solicit their future R&D and technology needs. In 2013, I received the Roger W. Jones Award for Executive Leadership, the National Intelligence Exceptional Achievement Medal, and directed an interagency team receiving the National Intelligence Meritorious Unit Citation for advancing both improved security and public freedoms.

After this role, I was selected as chief information officer for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). I led teams of 400 or more technology professionals focused on modular modernization of the Commission’s technology endeavors. I transformed the FCC’s legacy IT with more than 207 systems to award-winning tech in less than two years. I was awarded Fedscoop 50 in 2014 and 2015 for Federal Leadership. In 2015, I received CIO Magazine's CIO100 and Federal Computer Week's Fed100 awards, with the team I supervised receiving AFFIRM's Leadership Award in Cloud Computing, and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association's Outstanding Achievement Award. I was also named the Most Social CIO by Forbes and Huffington-Post in 2015.

Are there any career highlights you would like to share?

During college I built a computer simulation of the spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa and volunteered as a journalist in Cape Town in 1998 to help share information about prevention and treatment efforts. This led to me working as a volunteer crew leader with Habitat for Humanity International in the Ghana, Honduras, Nepal, Philippines, and Romania. In 2000, I signed up for the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program with the Centers for Disease Control. On September 11, 2001, I was supposed to brief the CIA and FBI about technology measures we would employ if a bioterrorism event were to occur. When the world changed at 8:34 a.m., the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Team mobilized, and for the next three weeks none of us got a lot of sleep. Later we, and several others, responded to the anthrax events in 2001, West Nile Virus, Severe Acute Respiratory System in 2003, monkeypox, ricin, and other emergency events.

In 2005 I began to pursue a PhD focused on how to improve intra- and inter-organizational responses to disruptive events. Later, I completed two post-docs at MIT and Harvard on networked decision making. I then volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan in 2009 to help military and humanitarian leaders think differently about efforts on the ground. From 2010-2011, I chaired as a non-partisan Senior Executive the initial White House subcommittee efforts to improve relations among the information integration, network interoperability, and civil liberties activities of the U.S. government. I directed responsible information sharing efforts across defense, intel, law enforcement, homeland security, and diplomatic communities internationally. In 2012, I received the Arthur S. Flemming Award for Leadership, with past alumni including Neil Armstrong, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Elizabeth Dole, and Robert Gates. In 2014, I was named a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2015, I was an Eisenhower Fellow to Taiwan and Australia and was invited to serve as a Visiting Executive-In-Residence at Harvard.

Do you have any advice for young students interested in science?

The sciences are a broad field, including everything ranging from physics, to biology, computer science, to psychology. What makes the sciences distinct from other fields of study is the ability to repeat, learn from, and create cumulative knowledge based on the past research of others. In several ways, the sciences are like a continuous conversation of knowledge, discussion, debate, and refinement.

I recommend young students explore and discover what part of the sciences interest them the most. It's such a broad field that almost everyone will find something that appeals to them. Take the time to learn what ongoing conversations and debates exist in that part of science and then reflect on how you might add to the conversation. Think creatively. The best part of science is the creative exploration aspect. Most importantly, find ways to have fun as you learn more about our universe and reality.