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Air Force Research Lab forms materials-focused Center of Excellence with Carnegie Mellon

The Center of Excellence team held their kickoff meeting on Dec. 12 and 13. (Courtesy photo)

The Center of Excellence team held their kickoff meeting on Dec. 12 and 13. (Courtesy photo)

Members of the Center of Excellence team at the kickoff meeting, from left to right: Col. Jason Mello, Chief Science and Engineering Division, AFOSR; Professor Jon Cagan, Dean of the College of Engineering, CMU; Professor Elizabeth Holm, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, CMU; Sean Donegan, Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate; Professor Burcu Akinci, Associate Dean of Research, CMU. (Courtesy photo)

Members of the Center of Excellence team at the kickoff meeting, from left to right: Col. Jason Mello, Chief Science and Engineering Division, AFOSR; Professor Jon Cagan, Dean of the College of Engineering, CMU; Professor Elizabeth Holm, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, CMU; Sean Donegan, Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate; Professor Burcu Akinci, Associate Dean of Research, CMU. (Courtesy photo)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Looking to cultivate the ideal future workforce in materials research, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, together with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, has awarded a multi-million-dollar cooperative agreement to Carnegie Mellon University, an institution with a long history of education in scientific research. With a 50 percent match from CMU, the Center of Excellence will fund cutting-edge research and develop Ph.D. students in an emerging area of materials science: using artificial intelligence and machine learning to discover, analyze, design and develop both existing and new high-tech materials. A kickoff meeting for the Center was held Dec. 12 and 13 at CMU.

A Center of Excellence is a team of experts that combine their talents to develop new ideas, best practices, research, support, and training in a particular focus area.

“This is a joint effort between AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and AFOSR,” said AFRL project manager Sean Donegan. He went on to explain that in creating the Center of Excellence, AFRL is hoping to develop its own future workforce. “We are funding Ph.D. students to do their research in areas we think are important skills that will be especially useful for AFRL.”

According to Donegan, this particular Center of Excellence is unique in that the funding agency, AFRL, is also an active member of the team. “There will be significant collaboration between AFRL and the CMU students,” said Donegan. “Student researchers will spend their summers onsite at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and AFRL scientists will, in turn, spend time at CMU throughout the academic year.”

Donegan explained that this CoE is about more than just materials research. “We’re very interested in expanding the horizons for materials research by utilizing and developing new techniques from artificial intelligence and machine learning,” said Donegan. Therefore, the team will comprise CMU professors and students from a mix of disciplines, including materials science, machine learning, computer science, and human-computer interaction. “We’ll be doing about eight to twelve projects at a time,” said Donegan. When asked how the projects would be chosen, he explained that research leaders from CMU, AFOSR and AFRL have been asked to submit their ideas. These ideas will be developed across the CoE team to select those most beneficial to the members of the CoE based on shared interests and strengths.

“But we are also looking for new ideas,” said Donegan. “We are very interested in the basic science and will be looking at ‘off-the-wall’ ideas, too.”

“This COE offers tremendous potential to advance the use of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data-inspired experimental design and modeling for a host of critical Air Force needs,” added AFOSR Program Officer, Dr. Jaimie Tiley. “Partnering our research portfolios with this center will further bridge on-going basic science programs with the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and provide areas for increased collaboration.”

The student team members, who must be U.S. citizens, are being recruited now, with actual research beginning in early 2020. “Next summer a lot of work will be done here [at AFRL],” said Donegan. By then, “students will have gotten their feet wet. We can get them acquainted with the labs and the kind of work they will be doing.”

When asked how the CoE will be kept on track, Donegan explained that the work being done will be subject to an annual review by AFRL, as well as an external advisory panel. The first review will be done at AFRL.

This CoE joins another at CMU in Human-Machine Teaming and Trust and has endorsement at the highest levels of Air Force leadership, with the Air Force Science and Technology Strategy highlighting the value of CoEs for their ability to capitalize on basic research successes and provide opportunities for deeper university engagement that ultimately strengthens Air Force science and technology for 2030 and beyond. AFRL enjoys a longstanding relationship working with CMU on basic and applied research projects for the Air Force and anticipates strengthening that partnership through these centers.