By Dennis Neal, RDECOM Public AffairsMarch 25, 2014
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command is recognizing employees who go above and beyond in support of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For its first honoree, RDECOM salutes Dr. Sandra Young.
Young is a materials engineer with RDECOM's Army Research Laboratory. She has a bachelor's degree in chemistry and her doctorate in polymer science and engineering. She has worked for the Army for 14 years and has been involved with STEM outreach for just as long.
When did you first become interested in science?
My mom is a chemist, and she has a master's degree in analytical chemistry, so I heard about science from a very young age. In high school I remember you fill out those evaluations -- what you want to do in the future -- and I always had said I wanted to be an engineer. I remember going to DePaul, where I did my undergrad in chemistry. Everybody has classes that are particularly hard and you kind of push through it but it was actually being in a lab and doing an internship that had the biggest impact on keeping myself on-track to go into engineering. So I got my bachelor's degree in chemistry but then ended up going on to get my Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering.
How did you end up where you are today?
When I was in graduate school, one of the grants that we had was from the Army Research Office. So, in effect, I am a product of Army education outreach. One of the people who came and gave a talk was from the Army Research Lab, Dr. Nora Beck Tan. I was pretty close to getting done at the time and she encouraged me to come up and give a talk and to consider doing a post-doc and that's pretty much how I ended up here.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM, has really become a buzzword, why is STEM so important?
STEM is really important not only in our DOD community but in the country. There are numerous professions that have to do with science, technology, engineering and math, but also a lot of the products that come out on the market. We live in a pretty high-tech society, so having people have a basic understanding of different STEM subjects is pretty important even if it's at a very rudimentary level. We really try to encourage people to get a very basic understanding of critical thinking skills and of STEM technologies so they can make educated decisions.
Why did you get involved with STEM?
I've been involved in the American Chemical Society for many years, and they have pretty strong STEM education outreach and community activities. And it was really fun interacting with the students. So part of it was just starting out as 'hey, this is kind of fun.' You get to interact with students. You get to learn from them because when you have to teach somebody else something, you never know what kind of questions they're going to ask. You have to do a really broad sense of research on the topic even if it's for third-, fourth-, fifth-graders. So it started off as just this kind of fun, side thing that we did and it kind of evolved into getting a lot of people in the community involved.
How many years have you been involved with STEM and how many volunteer hours do you think you have put in?
I couldn't tell you the number of hours. That's something a colleague of mine, Dr. Rose Pesce-Rodriguez, and I joke about. We've done things on the weekends, we've done things on holidays, we're at library events, you're always doing something related to STEM. I've been doing this since 1999, so it's a long time now. I couldn't even tell you the number of hours.
You think about how you got where you are today and, inevitably, it has to do with mentoring. And so when you mentor students, you not only learn a lot, they learn a lot and you influence their future. And that's very meaningful. People want to have meaning in their careers and make sure it's not just doing something that maybe is 20 or 30 years off from seeing a realization. And this has direct impact so it really is a fun thing.
You were instrumental in establishing the STEM and Education Outreach Center on Aberdeen Proving Ground. How did the idea of the facility come about?
We kind of talked about it for the last five or six years. We had programs that operated during the summers where we bring students in through GEMS, Gains in the Education of Math and Science, for a week-long program but over several weeks in the summer. There were a number of issues that came up with regards to doing that.
You have to escort the students at all times, making sure there is nothing that the students shouldn't see in the labs, make sure they're in a decent lab space, a lot of things. I was working in labs with explosives and propellants. Even with the small quantities we're dealing with, you don't want the students around certain materials. We wanted to have space where we could bring students where there were real lab working spaces that were ultimately the safest place for students to be that aren't mimicking the stuff they have at their schools.
I think it was brought up in a meeting in 2011 when we first started talking about, if you could have anything you want, what would it be? And we talked about a facility and the idea kind of spun off after that.
Is there anything that you would like to add?
I think probably the biggest thing that we try to encourage here with bringing in students is that STEM is accessible to everyone. I think that's important to communicate. We're not trying to just make this for the kids who are supposedly 4.0, your perfect-grade students, because I've known a lot of people who have perfect grades and you get them in a lab and they're not creative. They're just very formulary because they know how to follow a lab but that doesn't mean that you're a great scientist per se. That means you're very good at remembering things and taking tests.
We are really trying to foster an environment where STEM is accessible to everybody, and we really want unconventional thinkers. I think encouraging the diversity of the sciences is going to be very important for that.
ARL is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC delivers it.