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Air Force partners with universities in next-generation minority leaders research collaboration program

Graduate student from the University of Texas El Paso, Cristian Orozco, works in the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate over the summer. One of his duties includes working with a vacuum chamber for thin film coatings for optics.  (U.S. Air Force photo / Marisa Alia-Novobilski)

Cristian Orozco, a University of Texas El Paso graduate student, works in the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate over the summer. One of his duties includes working with a vacuum chamber for thin film coatings for optics. (U.S. Air Force photo by Donna Lindner)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) -- The objective of the Air Force Research Laboratory Research Collaboration Program II (also known as the Minority Leaders – RCP) is to enable collaborative research partnerships between AFRL and academia that engages a diverse pool of scientists and engineers in addressing foundational research challenges in support of the nation’s air, space and cyberspace technology needs.

The new effort, co-led by AFRL, Ohio State University, Wright State University and North Carolina A&T State University, will create a national consortium to increase opportunities in the Air Force for minority science technology engineering and mathematics students and graduates.

Diverse perspectives from across the nation help conquer Air Force research and development challenges. Establishing AFRL-led cutting edge research projects at historically black colleges and universities, minority serving institutions and other partnering foundations is encouraging growth competencies at these universities for supporting aerospace technologies.

The six-year, $40 million project, funded by AFRL, develops and trains the next generation of STEM leaders. Students work with AFRL research mentors on projects throughout the academic school year and are employed by AFRL under summer internship programs with access to specialized research equipment and laboratory space to continue on-going research in concert with that mentor.

“This funding provides an exciting opportunity for OSU to partner with minority institutions from across the nation to develop creative approaches to cultivating a prepared, diverse research workforce for the next generation of scientists for the U.S. Air Force,” said Morley Stone, senior vice president of research at OSU. “In addition, through this work, these organizations will be better positioned to propose and perform on AFRL research opportunities and the larger U.S. Department of Defense enterprise.”

The scope of the research projects encompass a broad range of evolutionary and revolutionary technology advances within varied AFRL research topic areas, including structural and functional materials and applications, support for operations, manufacturing technology, radio frequency sensing, electro-optical sensing and spectrum warfare.

Layered sensing exploitation and enabling sensor devices/components, high speed systems, thermal management systems, rocket propulsion, turbine engines, aerospace vehicles, human-centered intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, bio effect, and training and decision making, are other topic areas of interest.

“There are many benefits to this program,” said Asheley Blackford, AFRL RCP program manager. “It creates a new source of quality university research with a highly trained pool of excellent student and engineering graduates. It also increases diversity of the workforce along with allowing access to innovative thoughts from culturally and scientifically diverse sources.”

AFRL has previously funded individual graduate student research projects. This effort is specifically designed to create a national infrastructure that will build a lasting pipeline that brings science and engineering students from minority-serving institutions to the AFRL and strengthens research connections between the AFRL and MSIs.

“Our fundamental goal is to develop the kind of community network that not only develops students’ skills, but also builds a meaningful relationship for the long haul between the institutions we’re working with,” said Michael Groeber, associate professor in integrated systems engineering at OSU and research director for the project.

The consortium will help member institutions identify potential projects and develop proposals for AFRL and other DOD research projects. The consortium will also subcontract awards to the participating members: The consortium leadership (OSU, WSU and AFRL) will review proposals, select projects for funding and offer technical support to MSI teams that receive funding through the consortium for research. And, the AFRL will work with researchers throughout the lab to identify projects that would benefit from outside help.

The environment at AFRL is unique. It enables students to truly experience the culture and research with strong personal experiences.

“I felt very relaxed and comfortable from the first day I arrived for work, and the environment is very friendly,” said Cristian Orozco, graduate student from the University of Texas El Paso. “My mentor introduced me to a slew of people that were always willing and eager to help me learn. I was empowered to independently perform hands-on work in the lab.”

Maintaining contact with each other is a great networking opportunity. Making new friends and learning a lot is priceless, Orozco commented.

This program permits students and faculty to be part of the cutting edge technologies developed in AFRL as well as leaving a strong technical footprint through collaborations. Research institutions have incorporated new competencies and curriculum to not only advance the institutions but the expertise of students across the nation. Students are grown into interdisciplinary researchers who are trained across multiple disciplines as the new workforce of the future.