Growing up in a blue-collar suburb west of Philadelphia, Richard Roca had never met an engineer—but he knew he wanted to become one. The son of Spanish immigrants with little formal education, he excelled in high-school math and science classes and had no doubt that he would attend college. “I was just like all of the kids in the neighborhood, all of us being post–World War II babies,” says Roca. “Our parents were going to make a better life for us than what they had.”
He enrolled at Lehigh University on an Alfred P. Sloan scholarship and earned his mechanical-engineering BS in 1966; at MIT, he earned a master’s and an ScD in the same field. After nearly 40 years advancing research and development for private industry and government agencies, he is now director emeritus of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL).
Roca’s graduate work at MIT began thanks to the sponsorship of his employer, Bell Labs, and it gave him the confidence to advance in his career. “At Bell in those days it was expected that you would challenge your superiors if you believed you had insight which bore upon a decision that had to be made,” he says. “It was heady and stressful at times, but at MIT I learned that if I applied myself, I could be intellectually and professionally competitive with the best the world had to offer.”
Roca quickly rose through the managerial ranks at Bell Labs and then at AT&T. His myriad roles included chief technical officer for AT&T Solutions, vice president in the federal systems business unit, and vice president in charge of developing Internet-based services. He also led planning for new AT&T products including the Advanced 800 Toll-Free Service and the Calling Card Service.
Known for innovation, Roca joined JHUAPL as director in 2000. “Hopkins was looking for someone who had an extensive R&D background and had experienced change,” he says. “Anyone who had been in Bell Labs had experienced several lifetimes of change during the ’80s and ’90s.” He guided JHUAPL in initiatives for the Department of Defense and NASA before semi-retiring as director emeritus in 2010.
Roca is a fellow of the American Society for Mechanical Engineers and a member of the Pan American Academy of Engineering; he serves on boards including the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee. In 2011, he earned the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service. He and his wife of 45 years, Diane, live in Columbia, Maryland.