6 awards in 3 years: SMART

A U.S. Department of Defense program has top engineering and science students all over the country competing for a select few scholarships – and Vanderbilt engineering students have claimed six of them in three years.

The Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship for Service Program provides full tuition, book fees, health benefits, paid summer internships, an annual cash stipend of $25,000 to $41,000, and employment at a DoD lab after graduation.

The DoD established the program five years ago to support undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. It aims to increase the number of civilian engineers and scientists working at defense department laboratories, which employ more than 200,000 engineers, scientists and mathematicians who work on some of the world’s most interesting research projects.

Zack Smith, a junior in mechanical engineering, and Catie Gay, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, are 2010 recipients.  In 2009, three students were awarded SMART scholarships:  Brian Okorn, BE ’10, computer engineering; doctoral student Ebonee Walker, interdisciplinary materials science; and senior Thiago Olson, electrical engineering.  Jeff Pierce, Ph.D. ’10 (engineering systems) received the award in 2007 and then served as a resource for other VUSE applicants.

The SMART program focuses on supporting students who demonstrate interest in conducting applied research. The highly selective program has grown from 27 awards in 2005 to 251 awards in 2009. It is also highly selective. In 2010 only 298 awards were granted out of 3,400 applications, resulting in an acceptance rate of slightly more than 8 percent.

“The process begins when students engage in research projects with faculty,” said Julie A. Adams, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering. “The scholarship provides students with a unique experience that augments their research and academic opportunities with a real world experience via the required summer internship with the associated DoD sponsor.”

Now a graduate student at VUSE, Brian Okorn began his undergraduate research on human-robot interfaces in Adams’ lab immediately after completing his freshman year.  He works on simultaneous localization and mapping in 3D (3D SLAM) for the automated mapping of smuggling tunnels, which is his master’s thesis topic. Okorn completed his summer internship at the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego and his post-graduation job will be in SPAWAR’s unmanned systems lab.

“The scholarship provides an income far greater than any internship or student job ever could and it allowed me to remove the loans I had,” said Okorn, who credits Adams for extensive help as a mentor. “Professors like her are the reason I selected Vanderbilt and I don’t believe I would have achieved as much as I have without her.”

The main reason he applied for this scholarship was the job opportunity. “I work in mobile robotics and when it comes to robots the government has the best technology and is doing the most advanced research.  Even before I learned which lab picked me up, I was excited.  But when I learned I would be working on military robots in San Diego it was unbelievable.”

Doctoral student Ebonee Walker said SMART spells freedom.  “The stipend and the job after graduation means I don’t have to worry about questions like ‘Do I have funding?’ and “What am I going to do after this?’ “

“I have the freedom to pursue research I find interesting and I can avoid some issues that may become a distraction to the process,” Walker said.

Walker, whose faculty adviser is associate professor Greg Walker, completed a summer internship at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., where she had an interned before entering graduate school. Her research stems from that previous internship at Redstone.

“AMRDEC was interested in using carbon nanotubes in missile composite materials to enhance thermal properties. I use molecular dynamics simulations to study thermal transport processes in carbon nanotubes and their composites so we can identify how processing techniques at the macroscale affect behavior at nanoscale,” she said. Walker’s post-graduation employment will be at AMRDEC.

Mechanical engineering senior Zach Smith will intern in summer 2011 at the Air Force Material Command/Warner Robbins Air Logistics Center in Georgia, where he will work after graduation.  Smith, a dedicated member of the School of Engineering’s Rocketry Club, is excited to work at the AFMC where maintenance is performed on the Air Force’s entire fleet of helicopters and special operations aircraft.

Smith’s undergraduate research on mechanical design of medical devices, under the direction of his faculty asviser assistant professor Robert Webster, led to a paper he co-authored on the development of a new manual insertion tool that allows a cochlear implant to be positioned into the cochlea while working down a deep narrow channel, eliminating the need for a mastoidectomy. Smith’s paper was presented in April at the 2010 Design of Medical Devices Conference.

Catie Gay, a 2010 recipient and a third-year doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, looks forward to a 2011 summer internship in the U.S. Army Geotechnical & Structures Lab in Vicksburg, Miss.

Gay’s research with Florence Sanchez, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, focuses on the use of carbon nanofibers in cement composites. “Carbon nanofibers have the potential to bridge nano-size cracks and flaws in the composite structure. My research looks at the macro-scale performance of composites containing nanofibers and multi-scale, fiber-reinforced cement composites,” Gay said.

“The internship allows me to have more resources for my Ph.D. research,” said Gay, who said a job at the Army Structures Lab motivates her to finish her degree and continue her work on cement composites.

Senior Thiago Olson, whose research with faculty adviser professor Weng Poo Kang focuses on fusion physics, has already interned at his sponsoring facility – the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Detroit. Olson plans to work at TARDEC for two years and then pursue graduate studies.

“These are academically talented and extremely conscientious students. They demonstrate a strong commitment to research, and have the curiosity and intellectual ability for very successful careers in engineering,” said Dean Kenneth F. Galloway.