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WHF Profile: Lav Varshney (2022-23)

The following interview is courtesy of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

A title can be a simple word, and yet it doesn’t always convey the true depth and accolades of the person who bears it. Terms such as scholar, entrepreneur, chief scientist, expert, engineer and researcher can all be used to describe ECE Associate Professor Lav Varshney, but they’re just hints of his work and knowledge. They don’t explain that he’s assisted with three startup companies, nor that he focuses on issues regarding artificial intelligence, climate science, telecommunications, information theory and many more. 

Similarly, many might wonder about what his newest title means: White House Fellow. 

On August 31, 2022, Varshney joined the 57th class of White House Fellows in Washington, D.C. For a year and a day, he and fourteen others worked closely with senior White House staff, Cabinet Secretaries, and other top-ranking government officials. Founded in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the fellowship gives emerging leaders first-hand experience working at the highest levels of government and experience U.S. policy in action both here in the states and abroad. Varshney was placed at the National Security Council under the Deputy Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology. His expertise in AI was utilized in contributing to the executive order on artificial intelligence. 

Now that his fellowship is over, Varshney is able to discuss more of what he experienced and accomplished. The following interview has been edited for brevity. 

Someone suggested the fellowship to you. What drew you to apply, and what was the process like?

That’s right: although the White House Fellowship has such leaders as Colin Powell, Elaine Chao, Sanjay Gupta and Wes Moore as alumni, I was not aware of it. I received an announcement through the National Academy of Engineering email list just a few weeks before the application deadline. I had both longstanding and immediate interest in public service, so it caught my eye. 

The written application was due the first week of January and the regional interviews were in March. The national interviews were in Washington, D.C. right after Memorial Day and then I was selected. I went back to D.C. for placement interviews around July 4, and I learned I was going to be serving on the National Security Council staff in August. I started August 31.

What were your thoughts when you found out you were picked for the fellowship? 

Although I wasn’t quite a skinny kid with a funny name, who would have imagined that someone with my background could be selected for such a prestigious program? I also hoped that I could make my ancestors proud. The fellowship is a great honor and a privilege, but also a responsibility.

This was after I started, but when you walk in the gate every day past Secret Service checkpoints, you do feel like you have great responsibility in serving. One of our guest speakers in the education program described it really well. He said every day when I walk in the gate, I remind myself that I am a servant of the sovereign and in the United States, the sovereign is the people. I very much felt like a servant of the people during my fellowship.

You must have done so much over that year. What was your favorite thing that you were able to do while serving in this position?

I think the core of it was actually doing the work. In my work at the National Security Council, I contributed to the executive order on artificial intelligence that the President signed at the end of October 2023. A lot of work went into that effort, and it is a pretty wide-ranging. It addresses labor and workforce, immigration, research funding, economic strength, national security problems and even how to initially characterize the performance of large AI models in terms of resources, despite this being very much an open research question. It was really compelling to work on the Executive Office of the President, across the White House, and all the departments and agencies in government to put that together.

I also worked on an arrangement between the U.S. and the European Union to work together on AI to demonstrate how like-minded countries can share data, given our respective regulatory regimes like GDPR and HIPPA, and actually drive progress in areas like health, climate, energy and so on. All of this while ensuring privacy, civil rights and civil liberties. This can be a counterweight to more authoritarian approaches to AI. It was a learning experience in both the negotiations and working with the European Union, but then also, internally, getting the Department of Energy, the NIH, NOAA and all kinds of folks on the U.S. to side together.

One of my favorite projects involved working on 5G and 6G wireless policy, another critical component for national security, given that so much important information flows through communication systems. I drafted the United States principles on 6G wireless, based on a large convening of industry, academia, government and numerous international partners. Going back to my roots in information theory also helped me drive aspects of U.S.-India relations on 5G/6G/OpenRAN in terms of taskforces to push both research and industry deployment of these important technologies in a way that brings these two large countries together and ensures a level playing field for the technically best technologies around the world. These were announced during PM Modi’s state visit to Washington, D.C., and the President’s visit to India for G20.

Since you were communicating with so many different departments and the European Union, did you ever get to travel as part of the Fellowship? Or is it easier to get everything done from DC?

In my placement at the NSC, I did travel with my boss, Deputy National Security Advisor Anne Neuberger. We came to Chicago and to Cincinnati to talk to people on the ground about smart and secure cities: how AI in critical infrastructure like water, wastewater, electricity and transportation actually plays out in practice and how to ensure solid cybersecurity and broader notions of AI security.

The fellowship also had numerous educational trips. We went to Paris and Brussels to meet our ambassadors there, while also meeting members of the French, Belgian, and European parliaments, as well as technical experts at NATO. It was really interesting to see how on-the-ground international relations happen because with modern communication technologies, the French government could, say, just call D.C. directly if they wanted to. Of course 200 years ago, having an ambassador plenipotentiary there would help you make timely decisions rather than month-long delays in waiting for Washington.

Now I think the two key aspects of this are that that it shows commitment. The fact you have hundreds of people living in Paris that are representing the country shows a commitment to the French. Secondly, it allows our diplomats and intelligence officers to figure out the key focus areas of importance to the host country; when you’re in purpose-specific meetings from Washington, it is hard to do the “outside the room” figuring things out.

We also did some really interesting trips to Texas, New York City and the naval base in Norfolk.

Did you have any full-circle moments on the trip?

Yes. I learned a lot. Before going into government, I thought, for example, the turkey pardoning on Thanksgiving was fairly silly, which it kind of is. Yet by being there, I really viscerally understood that government is there to serve the people and connecting to people at all levels is actually super important. It’s not just about policy-making, it’s also about telling people what’s going on, involving people, and having broad-based input. So that is something I appreciated much more when standing in the cold on the South Lawn of the White House while Chocolate and Chip (the two turkeys) were mostly warm inside.

What were the greatest challenges of your experience?

The logistics of it were tough. Luckily, my wife Nina helped a lot with figuring these things out. I couldn’t have done it without her support. Even during the year, professor life is fairly flexible, but National Security Council life is not. Having a boss, fixed work hours and a commute meant I wasn’t available at home too much. You’re doing a lot of classified work, which has to be done physically there at the White House. And as you may know, in secure facilities you have to leave your phone outside. One time, my daughter’s school called that she was sick. I didn’t get the message until three hours later because I hadn’t gotten to check my phone in a while. But luckily, my wife was able to go get her. Those kinds of logistical and personal challenges were definitely there.

Also, it was tough to keep up with my Ph.D. students back here in Illinois because I didn’t have so much time or flexibility. So I did try to catch up with them once in a while just to see how they were doing, but that was really on nights and weekends. Hopefully, though, I’m bringing back something useful to them and to the broader university community

It’s been several months since your fellowship. What reflections do you have to share?

I knew I wanted to serve through public service. But now I feel very much the duty and obligation to continuing serving in various ways whether it’s in my current role in academia or if I’m ever called back to Washington. 

Many White House Fellows end up staying in government, but many fellows go back to their normal lives as well, and presumably become leaders in their fields. But then once in a while, they’ll be called back for a year or two to help do something important. A fellow Fellow who encouraged me to apply worked for most of his career at Sandia National Lab, but then he was called back for another year to help set up the U.S. national computing infrastructure. 

What would you say is easier: trying to help craft policy or trying to navigate research?

They’re both interesting and compelling challenges. With research, you’re very much heading into the unknown. The mathematization of problems and figuring things out is really quite fun intellectually, and also potentially impactful.

Working in government, especially at the highest levels, I think the impact is almost automatic. But getting everyone on board is the challenge. The day-to-day of policymaking in a deliberative democracy like ours is very much figuring out people’s interests, trying to drive your own understanding of what may be best for the country and for the world, and bringing that all together.

Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone who might consider pursuing similar endeavors?

I think there is a strong need for scientific and technical expertise in government, whether it’s AI or other things. So I would encourage people to consider the White House Fellows program or other ways of getting involved in government to do so.

In a meeting in the Oval Office with the President, at the end, he told the story of how he was encouraged to first run for senate. It was actually one of his professors at the University of Delaware. The party people came to him and asked him to run. On his way home, he stopped at the university and talked to his professor, and the professor essentially said that even if you don’t think you’re qualified, you’re probably a better person than others who might run, with some quotes from ancient Greek philosophers. But I think that’s true for many of us that we might not think we’re capable of it, but we definitely are, and we should contribute in many ways to society.