NATICK, Mass. (Oct. 6, 2015) — After spending a busy summer working in the laboratories, test kitchens, parachute shops and shelter systems at the Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, the nation’s next generation of top scientists and engineers are ready to launch their careers.
More than 40 college undergraduate and graduate students from leading schools across the country served as summer interns and volunteers after pursuing NSRDEC’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, outreach initiatives.
Students were hired through the Pathways program, the Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education program, the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation program, the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Harnessing Emerging Research Opportunities to Empower Soldiers program, and the STEM Future Workforce Initiative.
These programs provide highly-motivated students with the opportunity to gain STEM-based work experience in their fields as well as invaluable, professional mentorship from NSRDEC’s senior researchers. In turn, students provide a fresh perspective to researching and developing STEM-based solutions for Soldier-domain challenges, injecting a dose of youthful innovation into NSRDEC’s mission.
That innovation was highlighted during the 9th Annual Future Workforce Poster Presentation, held in late August.
“This is one of our major recruitment tools,” said Sharon Menard, manager of NSRDEC’s workforce development team, the organization’s human resource arm. “Many of these students will be graduating soon and, hopefully, we’ll have an opportunity to retain them as full-time employees or have them back as student interns.”
The event is a big driver for increasing interest in STEM occupations and civilian government service.
“That’s why it’s called ‘the future workforce presentation’,” said Menard, whose team is responsible for hiring and managing NSRDEC’s civilian personnel. “We’ve already made an investment in their future by training and mentoring them, so we want them to come back and work for us full time.”
The event routinely draws a large crowd of Natick employees, especially NSRDEC team leaders and mentors looking for new additions to their teams. It’s also a chance for fellow scientists and engineers to see all the students’ body of work and evaluate their presentation skills, with an eye toward future employment.
“The poster session is the culmination of the work they did here,” said Melissa Tobin, a business student and senior at Stonehill College, who has worked the past four summers on Menard’s team. For the last two years, Tobin has led the event’s coordination as her own student project.
“It’s an opportunity for students to show what they’ve learned here, hone their presentations skills and network with the NSRDEC workforce,” Tobin said. “At the same time, they are being evaluated as potential employees so it’s really a mutually-beneficial event.”
This year’s student presentations demonstrated a wide-range of innovative projects that supported NSRDEC’s existing science and technology efforts to improve Soldier-performance. Students supported the research and development of everything from environmentally-friendly ration packaging to energy efficient shelter systems and unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.
Thomas Pritchard, a physics and engineering major at Washington and Lee University, worked with the Aerial Delivery Directorate’s Personnel Airdrop Systems team conducting parachute service life evaluations.
“The goal of my project was to identify any trends that might extend the current 12-year service life of personnel parachutes,” Pritchard said. “By analyzing the data of time versus the number of jumps, we can measure the air permeability and determine if it validates the current service life.”
“I was struck by how many factors go into parachute engineering, how they affect performance, and how much data analysis occurs,” Pritchard said. “It never stops.”
Jenna Domek and Alexander Leccese, both computer engineering students at the University of Massachusetts, or UMass, Lowell working for the Aerial Delivery Directorate, teamed up to develop the “Video Quadcopter,” a small, four-armed, unmanned aerial vehicle, mounted with two high-quality cameras designed to fly near airdrops to capture video of falling payloads.
The system could help units confirm a successful drop and evaluate their aerial resupply operations.
“We noticed how much time Army personnel were spending searching for the payload,” Domek said. “The Quadcopter would allow more time recording video data and less time manually searching for the airdrop after it lands.”
“Simply mounting Go-Pro’s on a payload during a drop limits the data available to planners,” Leccese said. “The Quadcopter provides a wider scope of visual information to analyze how well the drop functioned.”
Caitlin Wertz, a food science major at Framingham State University, worked in NSRDEC’s Combat Feeding Directorate under the guidance of senior food technologist and mentor, Mary Scerra.
Wertz investigated how the retort process, by which food is cooked at extremely high temperatures over an extended period of time, affects food products in the meal, ready-to-eat, or MRE. Wertz was struck by the stringent requirements MREs must meet to survive extreme conditions before they even get to a warfighter in the field.
“I wanted to experience – from beginning to end – how retorting works and how it impacts the flavor, texture, color and nutritional value of the food Soldiers eat,” Wertz said. “And see if I could develop a side-dish that maintains more of those qualities after the retorting process.”
Wertz then designed and conducted her own experiment that evaluated how different formations of polenta, an Italian-style porridge made from cornmeal, could be used as a potential side component in the MRE.
“It was nice to be able to create my own project,” Wertz said. “Now I understand how difficult it is to overcome all the shelf-life challenges, and how the retort process mitigates them.”
“I have a new-found respect for military food technologists.”
The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to empower the Army and joint warfighter with technology and engineering solutions that ensure decisive capabilities for unified land operations. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.
By Jeff Sisto, NSRDEC Public Affairs