From Battlefield to Lab Bench
NSF Research Program Helps ENG Vets Shape Careers
By Mark Dwortzan
US military personnel return from active duty with highly marketable knowledge and skills, but many find it difficult to quickly parlay their experience into well-paying jobs. To help rectify the situation, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds the Veteran’s Research Supplement (VRS) program, which allows veterans at selected colleges and universities to participate in industrially relevant research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—fields in which job openings far outpace the supply of qualified US applicants.
Since the inception of VRS in 2011, the College of Engineering’s NSF Industry/University Collaborative Research Center for Biophotonic Sensors & Systems has welcomed the opportunity to engage veterans in research through this program.
“Vets come to us with an unusually strong work ethic and high confidence but often lack the experience to be comfortable in taking on a big research project,” said BU Photonics Center Director and Professor Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE). “VRS gives them the opportunity to take on such projects and pursue careers in research, which is the main engine of our economy.”
So far two veterans have thrived in faculty-supervised summer projects funded by VRS, emerging not only with new research skills but also a more well-defined career path.
Cliff Chan: From Technician to Engineer
Cliff Chan, who deployed four times in the Middle East and Southeast Asia as an Air Force Guidance and Control Specialist, came to BU seeking to take his skillset to the next level. With a B.S. in mathematics and computer science from the University of California, San Diego, two years developing software for an electronic health records company, and four years maintaining aircraft control systems for the Air Force under his belt, Chan aspired to learn how to design the kinds of technologies he came across during his military service.
To transform himself from a technician to an engineer, he sought a way to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering in a reasonable timeframe without having to start from scratch, and he found it in the College of Engineering’s Late Entry Accelerated Program (LEAP). Like all LEAP students, Chan spent his first year taking undergraduate engineering courses to get up to speed, but got his first taste of engineering design the following summer (2011), thanks to the VRS program. Working for three months in Professor Jerome Mertz’s (BME) Biomicroscopy Lab within BU’s Center for Biophotonic Sensors and Systems, he developed software that enables microscopes to provide high-contrast images of biological samples in real time.
“The project was a real transition for me, as I had to solve a problem by first figuring out what I needed to learn, and then how to apply it,” recalled Chan, who was used to getting more explicit instructions in the Air Force and had never worked in a research lab. “It opened up my eyes to another world.”
Subsequently hired to work full-time in the Biomicroscopy Lab while completing his Master of Engineering in electrical engineering, Chan has continued to advance microscopy techniques aimed at improving medical diagnostic imaging. The experience has led him to consider working in research and development for defense and other industries, conducting experiments and designing devices with real-world application.
It has also prepared him to work through the inevitable unexpected challenges that arise in advancing new technologies.
“What I like about Cliff is that he’s undaunted,” said Mertz. “He wants to learn everything that’s out there to tackle his work. The problems we faced were much more complex than I had anticipated, but Cliff’s efforts definitely kept us on track, and kept us progressing.”
Chris Stockbridge: From Defusing Roadside Bombs to Protecting Future Soldiers
Chris Stockbridge returned to civilian life after five years as an officer and combat engineer in the Army that included two tours of duty in Iraq. During each deployment he came to appreciate the engineering behind technologies used to protect soldiers, including devices used to search for and destroy roadside bombs. Equipped with those experiences and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the US Military Academy at West Point, he applied to the PhD program in mechanical engineering at BU with the goal of working as a civilian engineer at a national military research lab.
“I came to BU to study micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), particularly those which could be of great value in military applications, and because I knew that the Photonics Center has a strong relationship with the US Army Research Laboratory,” said Stockbridge.
Supported last summer by the VRS program to serve as the lead student in an NSF-funded project in Bifano’s Precision Optics Research Lab, he began fabricating MEMS for a new deformable mirror design for use in the Keck and other very large telescopes. Aimed at supplying the telescopes with mirrors that have more pixels for finer imaging control, his work could enable astronomers to make observations that shed light on the origin of the universe and the existence of life on extra-solar planets.
“The primary benefit to me from this project was spending more time doing hands-on MEMS fabrication work,” said Stockbridge, who had already spent two years working on the design of deformable mirrors in Bifano’s lab. “While I would prefer to work more in design after graduation, the hands-on skills are important for getting an appreciation of each process step that goes into building a MEMS mirror.”
As he has cultivated those skills, Stockbridge has proven to be an invaluable asset in Bifano’s lab.
“Chris is a consummate engineer who seems to thrive on tackling problems that are both thorny and hard, and I can see in his work the experience and training that he gained while serving in the Army,” said Bifano. “He is a natural collaborator, and all of the other students in my lab and in the labs of my close colleagues have come to rely on him for his strong sense of mechanical design and for his eagerness to help those around him. Chris will make a great professional engineer.”