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Join Forces

By Nancy Salem

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Military students get a taste of national lab research, a win-win for them and Sandia

FUTURE LEADERS − Students from West Point and other US military academies are at Sandia this summer as part of NNSA’s Military Academic Collaboration. The program gives the cadets real-world research experience and helps Sandia build relationships.  (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Army 2nd Lt. Willahelm Wan, a West Point graduate pursuing a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, found a path in an unexpected place. Two years ago, he signed on to spend a few summer weeks at Sandia in a real-world research environment. What he learned changed his career.

“At Sandia, everything is connected,” he says. “Projects have multiple components and overlap between departments. I considered myself a mechanical engineer, but saw that computer simulation, software, and programming are critically important to engineering.”

Wan began his junior year at West Point after leaving Sandia that summer and added a second major to his engineering curriculum – computer science. And he decided return to Sandia this year, in cybersecurity. “I love working here,” he says. “It’s great to explore different areas of Sandia. I learn so much.”

Wan is one of 45 students participating in this summer’s Military Academic Collaboration, or MAC, at the Labs. The seven-year-old program was started by NNSA to engage US military educational institutions and give students at West Point, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, and the Merchant Marines a taste of research in the nuclear security enterprise. Sandia, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Pantex Plant, Kansas City National Security Campus, Y-12 National Security Complex, and the Savannah River Site participate in MAC.

A great work ethic

“The students are here for a condensed time frame, three-and-a-half to six weeks,” says Staci Dorsey (215), who coordinates the program at Sandia. “It’s geared toward hands-on research. They often say they don’t expect to accomplish much, but they actually do. They accomplish a lot.”

The students have military training and a great work ethic, Staci says. “They finish a task and ask for more,” she says. “These are exceptional young adults who want to serve the country. They know what they want to do with their lives — protect and serve. They are motivated and have a passion for what they are doing. To me, that’s outstanding. It’s very rewarding to work with them.”

Each fall, Staci seeks out project leads willing to host one or more military students. It’s not a hard sell. The students come with clearances, and there is no cost to Sandia. The Department of Defense and NNSA pick up the tab.

A portfolio of jobs for the cadets

Staci builds a jobs portfolio and joins coordinators from other labs on visits to the campuses of the major military institutions. Most of the jobs are in technical areas such as physics, cybersecurity, biotechnology, materials science, and mechanical engineering. But Staci

says there have been positions in economics, psychology, and other areas. “Our pitch is to come to Sandia and do something completely different for a short period of time,” she says.

Interested students are matched with jobs and offers are made, but not all are approved by the schools, which have the final say on who will go, taking into account such factors academic standing and training schedules. “This year we made 70 offers and 45 were approved,” Staci says.

MAC host Bruce Kelley (6600) says the program lets cadets see the breadth and depth of Sandia, and gives the Labs bright, hard-working people. “The students work to come up to speed quickly on projects for which they often have limited familiarity,” he says. “We had one student who designed his own research project when he got here and continued to work on it when he went back to West Point. He then published an article on his work.”

Noel Nachtigal (8966), who has hosted MAC students at Sandia/California, says the cadets are curious self-starters. “This gives them a view into the kinds of things a national security lab does and an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to an ongoing, operational program,” he says. “It’s an awesome opportunity, for them and for us.”

Building relationships with future leaders

The program has grown every year, from six in fiscal year 2011 to the current number. Last year there were 29. MAC is not considered a talent pipeline for Sandia because the students commit to military service or more education after they graduate. “Some students go into the military as officers and others go to grad school,” Staci says.

But the Labs builds relationships through the program. Staci says the students could become military leaders and remember their time at Sandia. “We want them to consider the Labs as a resource if they need help with a problem,” she says. “We want to partner with these future military leaders.”

Bruce says the students see the range of Sandia’s work, “and hopefully they carry a positive impression of the Labs and its capabilities through their careers.”

Michaela McKeown, an incoming senior at the Coast Guard Academy, says her work at Sandia developing bioimaging agents at the Advanced Materials Laboratory has been beyond memorable. “I’m a mechanical engineer working on a chemistry-based project, and I’ve learned more than I ever dreamed possible,” she says. “I’m excited to tell my instructors and fellow students what I’ve been doing this summer. It far exceeded my expectations.”

Wan says the program inspired him to reach farther. “This was different from school. This was real,” he says. “I was able to absorb new knowledge. I won’t forget.”