Dan Hinkel

On Having the Best Job in the World

Dan Hinkel loves his job. As in, really loves his job. Working on behalf of something much bigger than himself is part of the reason why. So is giving back to the next generation of NSA scientists.

Dan Hinkel is the consummate kid in the candy store, only instead of gazing lovingly at glass jars of jellybeans and gummy worms, he’s got his eyes on x-ray devices and a scanning electron microscope. If this were a Roald Dahl novel, he’d be both Willie Wonka and Charlie, perfecting fantastical creations from circuits and atoms instead of sugar and chocolate, and taking care of everyone on the team in the process.

With multiple degrees in electrical engineering—a course of study selected for him by the Air Force after he joined ROTC in high school—and more than 20 years at NSA labs, Dan has become a jack of all trades and the de facto Lab Dad. He channels his frenetic energy into a multitude of projects, noting that he’ll work “on or with just about anything if I’m capable of doing it.” One gets the impression, however, that when Dan says, “capable of doing it,” what he really means is “able to figure out how to do it”—and that in the end he always figures it out.

Given his long tenure with the program, it’s no surprise that Dan has become the go-to guy for advice and assistance. “Mentorship is very important,” he asserts. “We have to pass on what we know to the younger generation. We need to pass on how to be a good scientist, how to be a good government employee, how to be a good person.” He continues, “Many people come to me for questions on how to do this or that or what’s a more efficient way of doing something. People ask for help and I always help them. Even if I’m too busy, I make time to help, always.”

“You’re working on things that are definitely bigger than yourself and at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Although prone to downplaying his own expertise, crediting his success to being “in the right place at the right time, and getting to work with so many great and talented people and teams over the years,” Dan has built up an impressive body of work during his career, including several patents that bear his name.

The majority of the patents are in the area of high-speed, all-optical logic—meaning, instead of information being converted between the optical and electrical domains as it travels down a fiber optic cable, everything is kept in the optical domain. Information travels down the fiber as photons, is then processed in the optical domain, and sent on its way down the fiber again, no conversions needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed Dan down. In fact, it gave him time to focus on one particular research project that needed his attention. “Because of COVID, I was able to focus on that project, collect the data I needed, and show that it worked. Now it’s being used in the real world.”

Transitioning scientific research to the real world is the ultimate goal of Dan and his fellow scientists. Dan estimates that he spends about half his time in “mission and capability spaces” at NSA to get to know the problems and challenges those teams face so that he can figure out ways to solve them. That drive to support the overall NSA mission, to solve those big problems, underpins everything Dan does.

“Coming here to this lab is a unique place to work. You do super important things for a really big cause. You’re working on things that are definitely bigger than yourself and at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

This Barrier Breaker profile is part of a series focusing on researchers at the NSA's material science laboratory. To meet some of Dan's amazing colleagues and learn more about how primary research at NSA helps benefit society (and keeps our country safe), check out our story Inventing the Future at NSA Labs.