Arun Seraphin ’91: From Stony Brook to the Hill and Beyond

For Arun Seraphin ’91, Stony Brook is more than just his alma mater. It’s part of his identity.

From the time his father, Dominic, graduated in 1969, the university has played a big role in his family’s life. Not only did his father work on campus as a professor for more than 20 years, but his siblings also attended Stony Brook, taking the term “legacy family” to a new level. 

While Arun’s connection to Stony Brook remains strong, his storied career in science and defense has taken him far beyond campus. Referred to as a “Washington, D.C., icon” by his peers, Seraphin has built an impressive career on Capitol Hill, using his dual degrees in engineering and political science to ensure the nation is developing and deploying the best new technologies for national security. 

Today, he serves as deputy director of the Emerging Technologies Institute for the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) – and that’s not all he’s up to. Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged Seraphin’s success in the industry with a prestigious appointment to the U.S. Department of Defense Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution Reform (PPBE).

From Long Island to the Hill and beyond, you have carved out a unique and highly successful path. Tell us about your journey from Stony Brook to deputy director of the NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

I started my academic journey at Stony Brook, earning dual degrees in engineering and political science. After graduation, I went on to earn my PhD in material science from MIT. But I always wanted to work at the intersection of government and technology, which led me to Washington, D.C. I worked at a think tank first and then on Capitol Hill, where I began working on science and technology policy, with a particular interest in defense. I worked on the Hill for a long time, with stops as the special assistant for policy initiatives at DARPA — a Pentagon research agency, and principal assistant director for national security and international affairs for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. After 20 years of working in government, I left to work at a defense industry trade association, the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), where I am now the deputy director of the NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute (ETI). ETI is a think tank that is studying how new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and biotechnology, will impact the military.

You were recently appointed to the Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution Reform. What does this mean to you? What are the commission’s primary goals right now?

It is very much an honor. Congress created the commission to update how the Pentagon handles funding. The current system was largely developed in the 1950s and ’60s. Since then, the world has completely changed — for example, technology moves a lot faster. This is especially true when it comes to buying software. The government’s interaction with the private sector has also changed significantly over time. The Pentagon’s financial systems are not really designed to handle anything that moves too quickly or support innovative, nontraditional partnerships with the private sector, state or local government. The way the Pentagon handles money must not get in the way of researching and purchasing the best new technologies for soldiers. Hopefully, over the next few months, we will be able to come up with some interesting recommendations to help bring these budget processes and financial systems into the 21st century.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

At NDIA, we look at the way technologies will shape the future of the military and try to support policies that can more quickly get these technologies into the hands of our nation’s military. We gather experts from industries and universities to help develop recommendations for Congress and the Pentagon on high-priority technologies and policies. On a typical day, we host meetings and launch studies. For example, right now, we are looking at a range of technologies, including hypersonics (which allows a missile or plane to travel at many times the speed of sound), quantum computing and biotechnologies. 

We also host an educational podcast on new technologies and ideas affecting the defense industry. Recent guests have discussed the applications of new technologies to help the Special Forces and the ethical issues surrounding the use of artificial intelligence on the battlefield. Laura Lindenfeld, executive director of Stony Brook’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, discussed why it is important for scientists to communicate well. I have enjoyed the chance to host some of the episodes.

Another piece of my work is helping NDIA put on major technology conferences across the country, giving the government and industry a chance to share their ideas and learn about new partnership opportunities. Strangely, this work ties back to my experience at Stony Brook. As a student, I helped run the ICON science fiction convention, which was one of the largest on the East Coast. Thousands of people would come to see guests ranging from Nobel Prize winners to Star Trek actors. Although these conferences are very different, it is funny to think about some of the same kinds of things again.

Stony Brook has been part of your family since your father graduated in 1969 and spent his career working for the university. What role did Stony Brook play in your life growing up?

When my parents immigrated from India, my father came to attend Stony Brook, and after graduating, he decided to stay on Long Island and work at the university. So I grew up just a few miles from campus in Port Jefferson Station, and everyone in my family had a connection to Stony Brook. We were part of an Indian community built around the university. As a high school student, I took classes at Stony Brook and attended the ICON science fiction convention, which I would later help run. Over all these years, we have made so many friends through Stony Brook, and those friendships continue today.  

We recently experienced the passing of my father. During his funeral services, there was a great outpouring of support from our old Stony Brook family. We all remembered how important Stony Brook was to Dad in shaping his life in the U.S.

Your siblings also attended Stony Brook University and earned degrees in biological sciences. What has it been like to share an alma mater? What are they up to?

Even though our time at Stony Brook did not overlap, we have many shared experiences that we continue to share with our children today. It’s funny, the first piece of mail I received from Stony Brook as a prospective student had a picture of my brother on it — that’s how ingrained we were in the campus community.

My sister, Letha, is currently working as a doctor in Washington, D.C., and my brother, Dominic, is a hospital administrator in Connecticut. They still keep in touch with some of the people they knew at Stony Brook.

Who at Stony Brook inspired you?

Of course, my father was my number-one inspiration at Stony Brook, but I also had a number of great professors. The late Franklin Wang, a former engineering professor, was an inspiration to me. I worked in his laboratory from the time I was a high school senior until I graduated from SBU. We were working on superconductors, which were a hot technology at the time. Professor Wang taught me how to perform research and inspired me to get my BS in engineering and PhD in materials science, so I’ll always view him as one of my mentors.

Professor Les Paldy was also very inspirational to me. He taught classes on technology and society, using his government and national security expertise, which taught me a lot about science and security policy. 

But what I remember most about Stony Brook is the students I worked with. Whether it was running ICON or working with the Student Polity Association, they shaped a lot of what I am doing today.

You have been called a “Washington, D.C., icon” by your colleagues in the Department of Defense. Why do you think that is? 

I have worked in a number of organizations on the Hill, from the Pentagon to the White House, and I have always tried to work in a bipartisan manner. Over the years, I have been fortunate to have bosses who have helped us get a lot done. I have been part of passing legislation and establishing programs that have made it easier for people to do important scientific work to support our national security. So maybe that work, plus my longevity working on the Hill, got me that name. 

You are considered one of the nation’s most influential thought leaders at the intersection of science and defense. What are you most proud of in your career?

I have always felt that people could come to me with anything — ideas, problems or just to discuss something. Washington, D.C., can be a very challenging place because it is easy to retreat into your corner or get caught in a gridlock. So I’m proud because I have always felt like I was someone that people could go to if they wanted to cross traditional lines to accomplish something.

Over the years, I have also helped create scholarships and fellowships to help students enter STEM fields and also make the government a more compelling place to work for scientists and engineers. I’m very proud of that. 

What advice would you give to students looking to follow in your footsteps? Any advice for those interested in a career in public or international policy? 

Getting firsthand experience is important, whether through an internship or volunteer work. I volunteered on election campaigns in school and am still in touch with some of the people I worked with. These experiences not only help you learn but also make important connections.

Writing is another critical skill to have. It is important to know how to express your ideas and explain difficult concepts to others. I’ve actually been doing some work with the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook on this topic.

– Kristen Brennan

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