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 SMART program five years ago to support undergraduate and graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. The program aims to add civilian researchers at defense department laboratories, which employ more than 200,000 engineers, scientists and mathematicians working on some of the world’s most interesting research projects.
Zach Smith, a junior in mechanical engineering, and Catie Gay, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, are 2010 recipients. In 2009, three students received SMART scholarships: Brian Okorn, BE’10, computer engineering; doctoral student Ebonee Walker, interdisciplinary materials science; and senior Thiago Olson, electrical engineering. Jeff Pierce, PhD’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. 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,” says Julie A. Adams, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering. “The scholarship . . . augments their research and academic opportunities with a real-world experience via the required summer internship with the associated DoD sponsor.”
“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.”
~ Brian Okorn
Now a graduate student at VUSE, Okorn began undergraduate research on human-robot interfaces in Adams’ lab after completing his freshman year. He works in the field of simultaneous localization and mapping in 3D (3D SLAM) for the automated mapping of smuggling tunnels, his master’s thesis topic. Okorn completed his summer internship at the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego; his post-graduation job will be in its 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,” says 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.”
He applied for the scholarship primarily for 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,” Okorn says. “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.”
Freedom to Pursue Research
Doctoral student Ebonee Walker says SMART spells freedom. “The stipend and the job after graduation mean 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,” she says.
Walker interned at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., and will work there after graduation. Her research involves using carbon nanotubes in missile composite materials to enhance thermal properties.