Future scientists “poster” success at annual RX summer session

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- More than 60 students from the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate (RX) showcased their summer research for a crowd of research scientists, engineers and distinguished guests from across the region during the 2016 RX Summer Student Researcher Poster Session here, Aug. 5. 

The annual event provided students the opportunity to present their work in a low-risk, safe environment before their research colleagues and peers. It also provided them a chance to meet scientists and engineers from diverse AFRL disciplines and get a glimpse of ongoing research, to see what it might be like to work in another mission area.

“This is a low-risk, non-intimidating and safe environment for the students to discuss their work in an open forum,” said Asheley Blackford, the event organizer and program manager for the Minority Leaders-Research Collaboration Program at AFRL. “Today also provided a great opportunity for the students to network and look at potential future academic and professional career paths. It’s a great takeaway from their overall summer experience.”

The poster session, while signaling the end of the summer intern season, is also part of AFRL’s Minority Leaders-Research Collaboration Program. This program provides an opportunity for students to work at Air Force research laboratories under the guidance of government scientists and engineers to improve their personal research skills and abilities while directly impacting Department of Defense programs. In the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, there are more than 200 interns working directly with scientists and engineers in the lab, 120 of whom are here just for the summer. Interns range in age from the junior level of high school through graduate level students working on doctoral degrees.

“Students get hands-on experience of what it’s like to work for the Department of Defense, specifically the Air Force and Air Force Research Lab,” said Blackford. “They come here and get that one-on-one mentorship and are able to build their research competencies while gaining a better understanding of the Air Force applications for their work. In return, the Air Force gets the opportunity to help groom and develop these students into future subject matter experts.”

Dr. Neil Murphy, a research materials engineer, started his career at AFRL as an intern and had the opportunity to mentor a doctoral student this summer. “I still remember the challenges I had as a student not too long ago—they’re still fresh in my mind,” said Murphy. “You see students going through the same things. It’s great to be able to share my own knowledge and experience to help them.”

For Oscar Nunez, a graduate student in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso, the internship provided an opportunity to develop new techniques and operate on equipment not readily available to him at his home university. His experience this summer has motivated him to look towards government research lab work in the future.

“I never worked in a research lab before,” said Nunez. “Here, even though they give you a lot of support, they don’t babysit you. I was challenged to come up with new ideas and to figure out how to execute them. I like that I had the freedom to develop and explore. The whole experience has been invaluable.”

The benefits of the intern program are felt by the laboratory researchers as well. “The interns bring new, fresh ideas to work processes and help give a better vantage point than if I was working on a project myself. They definitely help increase productivity,” said Murphy.

The poster session and internship programs here are highly encouraged and supported by AFRL leadership and the local community. Event attendees included, among others, Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry, AFRL Commander; Sen. Bob Hackett, State of Ohio; Sen. Peggy Lechner, State of Ohio; Mayor Bob Stone, mayor, city of Beavercreek; and Mayor Marsha Bayless, mayor, city of Xenia, in addition to scientists and engineers from all areas of research across AFRL.

The event also highlights a leadership focus on personal and professional growth at all levels of the organization.

“The next generation of research is these students who we’ve taken the time to bring into our organization to show them what we do and how they can be part of the science and engineering community,” said Thomas Lockhart, the director of AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.  “In order to do our work, we’ve got to have an ecosystem that focuses on the sciences starting out at the K-12 level. It is important to get students interested in the sciences, and there are places in the lab for every person, even if they aren’t working towards a PhD.”

Overall, it was a great success, said Blackford.

“These are our future scientists and engineers. They help to foster innovation, and we want to encourage them to come back to AFRL to work here after they graduate,” she said.