The Historically Black Colleges and Universities/Minority-serving Institutions Summer Research Program is one of the many efforts the U.S. Department of Defense is taking to strategically diversify the civilian research and engineering workforce.
The program’s website indicates its goals are to “(a) enhance HBCUs/MIs research programs and capabilities in scientific and engineering disciplines critical to the national security functions of DoD; (b) expand the capacity of HBCUs/MIs to participate in DOD research programs and activities; and (c) increase the number of graduates, including underrepresented minorities, in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields important to the defense mission.”
The program is sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary for Research and Engineering/Research, Technology & Laboratories and its success in recent years speaks to the efforts that the DOD is making to diversify its research facilities and funding downlines. Recent statistics show that since the DOD’s HBCU/MI Summer Research Program started in 2017, more than 20% of its 272 interns had accepted positions within the DOD’s network of research facilities.
The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, located at Fort Rucker, Ala. is one of the many federal laboratories that champion the HBCU/MI Summer Research Program. USAARL has welcomed six interns during the past four summers. Three USAARL scientists and engineers have volunteered their time and skills to serve as mentors for the program. USAARL STEM outreach advocate and overseer of STEM activities within the laboratory, Dr. Lori St. Onge, indicates that USAARL hopes to have more interns in future summers and to get more of its scientists and engineers involved.
“Every year we try to broaden our outreach to HBCU/MIs to recruit students for internships at the USAARL,” says St. Onge. “Our command also strongly encourages our DOD civilian researchers and engineers to ‘build the bench’ by mentoring young professionals and students.”
USAARL is a direct reporting unit of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command. USAMRDC’s 2021 STEM Education Strategy directly outlines that the command intends to increase STEM outreach by 10% by 2025, with emphasis on increasing diversity within its facilities by participating in the HBCU/MI Summer Research Program and by recruiting from and collaborating with HBCU/MIs. USAMRDC encourages subordinate commands like USAARL to highlight the efforts of scientists and engineers who engage in STEM outreach by nominating them for incentive awards. Of the support USAARL has received from USAMRDC, St. Onge notes, “USAMRDC’s Outreach and Partnerships Office plays an important role in the success of USAARL’s STEM outreach programs. They develop the overall educational strategy for the command, coordinate activities across USAMRDC labs, provide a number of resources to make STEM education activities possible, and serve as the central office for communicating education outreach information and opportunities.”
This summer, USAARL welcomed Onye Andrus, a freshman aerospace engineering-major at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala. Andrus’ upbringing has ties to both the DOD and HBCUs, her mother was a retired Army Major and graduated from an HBCU/MI. Andrus learned about the HBCU/MI Summer Research Program from emails she regularly receives from her school that include scholarship and internship information for students. Although she didn’t know much about USAARL before her internship, when presented with a list of laboratories from which to choose, she felt the research at USAARL would provide a great learning experience based on her interests and goals. Andrus said “I was not aware of many of the listed laboratories, so I had to research each one that I thought was interesting through my application process. I selected USAARL as one of my options because of the different groups and the research that they conduct.” At USAARL, Andrus was mentored by Dr. Kevin O’Brien, a DOD Civilian research psychologist. Andrus is O’Brien’s third intern with the HBCU/MI Summer Research Program.
Working with O’Brien, Andrus developed a pair of virtual reality goggles on which to view a reaction time test used to measure attention, the Psychomotor Vigilance Test. The use of this hands-free version of the PVT will increase the validity of in-flight research data, as the test will be able to be conducted in a flight simulator or cockpit without requiring other tasks be stopped to complete the assessment. Andrus worked to develop a prototype of the PVT hardware and software, was exposed to microcontroller development, new coding languages and computer-aided design software. She also improved her skills in reading and creating schematics and learned the basic aspects of Python programming. O’Brien notes the improvements to the PVT will ultimately translate into improved performance and safety for DOD aviators by improving the collection and ecological validity of research data to enhance their protection and performance.
Andrus says that she would eventually like to work as an aerospace engineer for the Army or NASA, and that the work she did this summer has directly supported her goals. She says that her experience this summer has helped to prepare her for the future.
“Expanding my programming knowledge and learning new skills allows me to receive early hands-on experience,” says Andrus. “With this experience, I will be able to develop further as I grow as an engineer. I can take my time and learn the skills now, instead of being rushed to learn them in the future.”
For his part, O’Brien, agrees, and highlights the importance of mentoring the next generation of scientists and engineers. “Scientific research and engineering are intrinsically iterative processes,” he says. “Every advancement of knowledge or improvement in technology is built upon generations of prior effort and discovery. Being able to mentor the next generation is both a privilege and a duty. Even if their interests end up taking them elsewhere, the time investing in mentoring STEM students pays dividends by improving our society and expanding the cutting edge of what’s possible.”
Andrus notes that by participating in the HBCU/MI program, she has had direct exposure to the DOD research and engineering environment. She specifically mentions that the internship at USAARL will help her to reach her career goals by learning different skills and helping [her] understand the workflow of an Army laboratory. “This experience will give me an insight of where I wish to work in the future,” says Andrus.
Aside from her experiences at the USAARL, the HBCU/MI Summer Research Program provides its participants with professional tips, networking and the opportunity to learn about the many career opportunities within the DOD. The summer for students engaged in the HBCU/MI Summer Research Program culminates with a conference, where each participant must prepare an abstract, poster presentation and an oral presentation, detailing the research that they were engaged in over the summer. In past years, the conference took place at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., culminating in a bus tour of Washington, D.C. for students and their mentors.
When asked for advice for her fellow students interested in exploring careers in STEM with the DOD, Andrus encourages them to apply for as many internships as possible. “They [internships] allow you to gain firsthand knowledge about the workflow of DOD environments,” she says. “This can help guide you in the right direction when applying for jobs in the future. Lastly, it allows you to meet new individuals and create great connections.”
USAARL participates in multiple STEM outreach programs, like Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science and multiple cooperative research and development agreements with academic institutions. To learn more about USAARL’s efforts in STEM outreach, visit their website at: https://usaarl.health.mil/index.cfm/stem. For more information about the DOD HBCU/MI Summer Research Program, and information about how to apply, visit their website at: https://www.dodhbcumiinternship.com/.
About the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory. The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory is a world-class organization of subject matter experts in the fields of operator health and performance in complex systems; the en route care environment; blunt, blast and accelerative injury and protection; crew survival in rotary-wing aircraft and combat vehicles; and sensory performance, injury and protection. USAARL engages in innovative research, development, test and evaluation activities to identify research gaps and inform requirements documents that contribute to future vertical lift, medical, aviation and defense health capabilities. USAARL is a trusted agent for stakeholders, providing evidence-based solutions and operational practices that protect joint force warriors and enhance warfighter performance. USAARL invests in the next generation of scientists and engineers, research technicians, program managers and administrative professionals by valuing and developing its people, implementing talent management principles, and engaging in educational outreach opportunities.