Diversifying national defense researchers: Equipping a new generation of scholars and policy leaders

Rupal Mehta, NSRI PI, assistant professor, political science, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

August 11, 2020

Rupal Mehta, NSRI PI, UNL assistant professor


It was 2017, and Dr. Rupal Mehta was invited to speak at a National Defense University briefing in Washington, D.C. The event was a public conversation about national defense. As she walked into the grand, richly paneled conference room at Fort McNair, she felt a bit intimidated.

“I was nervous, because all of the other speakers were very well-established, respected scholars – and all men,” she said.

Then she reminded herself that she had been in many similar situations throughout her life and career, and she knew exactly what to do — be the leading scholar she had worked so hard to be.

Today, Dr. Mehta provides similar career-building experiences for University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) students, with a goal to diversify the next generation of scholars and leaders.

“The inclusion of the next generation and new, diverse voices is imperative,” she said. “In this ever-evolving world, it is important that leaders of the next generations — those who will have to deal with the consequences of our actions now — are part of the discussion and decision-making. This will help ensure that we make the best decisions moving forward.”

Dr. Mehta literally can draw on a lifetime of national security experience. She doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t discussing complex defense topics with her father, Dr. Naresh Mehta, a physicist and national security expert at the National Ignition Facility (Lawrence Livermore National Lab). As a teenager, during a visit to her father’s research office at the lab, her desire to follow in his footsteps began to grow.

Dr. Mehta has emulated her father’s work and become an expert in both research and policy/outreach – a rare combination. As she earned degrees in political science and later in her role at UNL, Dr. Mehta has worked with a host of eminent researchers, policy leaders, diplomats and thinkers across the security and nuclear enterprise.

At the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Dr. Mehta served as a research assistant for Dr. Francine Frankel, one of the nation’s most respected experts on U.S./India foreign relations, after college.

At the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, prior to beginning her graduate studies, she worked with one of the world’s foremost nuclear weapons, proliferation and military decision-making scholars: Dr. Scott Sagan. Her work with him exposed her to top-tier security and national defense players and stakeholders, and the world of academia.

After completing her doctoral degree at the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Mehta landed a tenure-track position at UNL.

“I was excited to come to UNL because they were developing a critical mass of national-security-minded scholars,” she said. “Through NSRI, the university demonstrated they have the devotion, intention, money and resources to do it, including a one-of-a-kind opportunity to work directly with USSTRATCOM. It is clearly one of the most unique and important opportunities any scholar can have in my area of study.”

Dr. Mehta said NSRI and UNL researchers are “some of the smartest people in the world and among the best in the nation in developing cutting-edge, policy-relevant research.” This includes Hinson and other NSRI directors, she said, including Dr. Christopher Yeaw, a renowned nuclear deterrence scholar and Department of Defense consultant.

It is the breadth and depth of her experience as well as her connections that give Dr. Mehta a unique capacity for both research and outreach, says her doctoral dissertation committee co-chair and now research partner Dr. Erik Gartzke. He is director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California, San Diego. The two currently are working on a new force structure project exploring decisions, capabilities and weapons that impact future security, deterrence and defense – including nuclear war.

As her career has unfolded, Dr. Mehta’s involvement and influence have extended far beyond UNL, NSRI and USSTRATCOM. She presents to national leaders, contributes to academic writings and publishes in respected publications. She speaks worldwide on deterrence and nuclear proliferation, which has opened new opportunities for global cooperation. Her second book is currently under review — her first book, Delaying Doomsday: The Politics of Nuclear Reversal, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

“Roughly half of people don’t get into grad school,” Dr. Gartzke said. “Half fail. Half that make it through classes don’t write a dissertation. If they get a degree only about half will get academic placements and half will not keep those jobs. Dr. Mehta is already one out of 16, and she very well may be the first tenured woman of color studying nuclear security in the world.”

In addition to her stellar research, policy and outreach work, Dr. Gartzke said Dr. Mehta has a true talent for teaching. At a recent USSTRATCOM nuclear deterrence conference, in a competition for best undergraduate paper, he said, among the top winners were her students.

“I was nurtured by distinguished mentors and given a seat at the table,” she said. “I’m a perfect example of how important it is to leverage the experience and passion of the next generation. I want to get more people in the room. I want to include diverse perspectives from scholars who are women, people of color or from other traditionally underrepresented groups, and more junior and allow them to lead on key issues, listen to experts and enact solutions, regardless of politics. This is critical for our success.

“UNL and NSRI gave me this amazing opportunity, and I want to pay it forward to help ensure that our nation achieves what it must achieve.”