Episode 42: The Infrared Visionary

  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Whitney Mason, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Microsystems Technology Office, explains how she became smitten with the science and technology of imaging. Even as a child, Mason was curious about the world, wondering about everything, she says, from why the sky is blue to what makes concrete hard. But what ended up inspiring her most and cementing in her professional trajectory was the fantastic ways that animals see, including the ability to see in the night using infrared light. “A soldier needs to see at night,” Mason says. “Or see through dust. Or find homemade explosives. Or find things really far away. Or track things.” That list of warfighters’ sensory needs explains a lot about the bold portfolio of projects Mason oversees at DARPA. She is out to provide warfighters with some of the smartest, most discerning, most versatile imaging sensors ever devised. As she explains in the podcast, this will require designing into the sensors brain-like functions of identifying what really requires attention in a complex scene of mostly benign features, preprocessing huge amounts of data the ways eyes do before sending information brainward via the optic nerves, and purging raw sensor data of extraneous portions that can be confusing to both people and computers. One of her programs, which aims to shrink otherwise unwieldly infrared imaging systems into much smaller and lighter packages, challenges materials researchers with a task equivalent to reforming a brittle ceramic dinner plate into the shape of cup. That’s just a taste of the tough problems her projects' research teams are working on. Challenging as her job might be, Mason seems to be just where she wants to be. “I have had very fun jobs,” Mason says, “but this is the funnest.”  

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