Darrell Roberts ‘89: connecting pieces of music and nuclear engineering
Long before he was deputy executive director for operations for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a young Darrell Roberts ’89 followed a love of music to find a sense of deeper meaning and order in the world.
“I always wanted something to do with music,” Roberts said. “I didn’t sing, and I couldn’t play instruments, and I wasn’t trained classically with music, but I knew there was something about it that I loved.”
As part of a military family, Roberts moved around a lot with his father’s assignments. He made new friends in each town, but music became his most consistent companion. When he relocated from Kentucky to New Jersey and back to Virginia, he was always accompanied by old friends Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and disco group Chic.
Roberts was 11 when he started listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on Sunday mornings. He started listening because Kasem played a lot of his favorite songs, but he soon discovered that there was more to the Top 40 than random music selection.
“That kind of put things in focus,” he said. “I found this order of things, this ranking of songs. There was a statistical aspect that I fell in love with.”
That order clicked with his developing view of the world. As a student who excelled in math and science, order helped him understand everything from algebra to anthills. Learning how those principles applied to everyday things set him on a natural journey to engineering, and his parents helped him find his way.
The ordered journey to nuclear engineering
When Roberts’ father returned from Vietnam in 1969, he and Darrell’s mother set their son on a path to pursue a college education, something neither of them had done.
“My parents weren’t just supportive,” said Roberts. “It was a given that I was going to be going to college from day one. It wasn’t an option, it was an expectation.”
As a junior in high school, Roberts took a class tour of the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station, a power plant in Louisa County, Virginia. Observing the inner workings of the reactor and its many connected pieces was fascinating to him, and the experience would stick. When he entered Virginia Tech a year later, he set on a path to major in mechanical engineering, pursuing as much study in nuclear power as he could find.
While a student at Virginia Tech, Roberts entered a co-op program to work at the North Anna facility he had visited in high school. He worked in the maintenance engineering department, splitting his time between his studies and his work in alternating quarters.
“When I got to Virginia Tech, it wasn’t easy for me,” said Roberts. “I had to buckle down and study after my first year, when I goofed off. The real trigger was the co-op job. The fact that I was working at a nuclear plant really piqued my interest. In fact, that was what caused me to take elective engineering courses that were more focused on nuclear engineering.”
Roberts was a member of the Eta Lambda chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., focused on social action through scholarship and other programs to improve underserved communities. He found balance in college life with a group of like-minded brothers who gave him support as he progressed.
His college experience at Tech culminated in a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1989. Shortly before he graduated, Roberts met representatives from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the Engineering Expo, a showcase of potential employers who visit campus to hire graduates. His experience working at North Anna was a great asset to his resume. The commission hired him into its entry-level program, and his first day on the job was in summer 1989.
Roberts has held several positions in his 32 years at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, propelled into new positions by his experience and diligent pursuit of learning. That education was formalized when he earned a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins in technical management in 2006.
Roberts' work at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has included visits to campus for Engineering Expo to find new talent, through which he’s hired Virginia Tech graduates in the same way he entered the commission’s employment. This has also given him the opportunity to offer his experience as a teaching tool.
“I’ve mentored dozens of people from different backgrounds, and what I see in them is younger versions of me,” Roberts said. “They have the same apprehensions and anxieties that I did coming up. I try to relate my experiences to them and give the best advice that I can give. One of the key aspects of that is recognizing some grace is needed, we’re not perfect. That mistake you made three years ago, don’t hold onto it. It’s not going to define your future. We weren’t born nuclear regulators and engineers; we learn those things along the way.”
The music never stopped
Roberts followed his curiosity for driving forces into the world of nuclear power plants, a career in which he excelled. Woven throughout his experience had always been the same love for music he developed as a young child. Attending concerts had always been a meaningful experience for him, but a concert by one of his favorite music legends set him on a path he hadn’t anticipated.
“I had gone to a Stevie Wonder concert in late 2014, and it moved me to write a post about it on Facebook,” said Roberts. “People saw that and encouraged me to start a music blog, so I started doing that in January 2015. I’m almost at 600 articles. There are aspects of music that I feel are relevant to current events, and music is a big part of how that’s expressed. I always try to find those connections.”
A recent article from Roberts’ blog focused on a moment where a song by Queen, a group of white rock and roll artists, created a poignant moment on Soul Train, which was a national showcase for black music and culture. The occasion was brought into being because of a boy with leukemia who wanted to dance with the Soul Train dancers, buoyed by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Queen’s song, “I Want to Break Free,” was the soundtrack. Roberts had seen the show during his senior year in high school, but the moment had bearing on tensions that exist today. His blog for that moment summarized the hope that the moment gave him, and the hope he still finds in similar moments of kindness.
“Humanity still exists,” he wrote. "It just takes cutting through the hatred and division to find the existing examples and to create newer ones.”
Roberts has not separated his work and his love of music. In a future blog post, he hopes to write an article about nuclear-oriented songs, such as George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” which also happens to be the unofficial stepping anthem of his beloved fraternity.