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NEWS | Oct. 27, 2022

NSWC PCD engineers awarded DoD SMART SEED grants

By Jeremy Roman, NSWC PCD Public Affairs

The Department of Defense (DoD) Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Program recently announced $3.7 million of new research grants as part of its competitive SMART Scholar SEED Grant Program for Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23).

Only 33 SMART Scholar SEED grants would be given DoD-wide. Two of those grant proposals will be funded at Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD).

Dr. Aaron Blevins and Dr. Jorge Jimenez, NSWC PCD X Department engineers, are the Navy Lab’s latest SMART SEED investigators within the field of artificial intelligence and autonomy. This program awards these grants to SMART scholars who have completed their Ph.D. degree and are beginning their careers as a new DoD researcher.

“To be awarded a SMART scholarship is a great achievement in itself. To further receive a SMART SEED Grant truly highlights the unique contributions SMART scholars are making to advance the DoD’s efforts to maintain scientific and technological superiority,” stated Dr. Brandon Cochenour, SMART Program manager.

Blevins, who graduated in July 2020 from the University of Kansas with a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering, shared why he got involved in the program.

“I applied to pursue an area of research that bridges the gap between my Ph.D. dissertation [developing and testing autonomy for polar research] with my role at NSWC PCD [developing and testing autonomy for unmanned underwater vehicles]. The program is important because it empowers SMART scholar recipients to be successful in their research fields during the early stages of their career,” said Blevins. “The support from this program helps recipients pursue research according to their unique expertise that will allow them to have successful careers as DoD researchers, as well as help them bring in future outside funding sources for their sponsoring facilities.”

Jimenez, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, explained why this program is a great opportunity for newly hired Ph.Ds.

“The program introduces you to the processes of scientific proposal writing and project management. Mastering your efficiency and effectiveness in these processes are crucial for a successful career,” said Jimenez. “When the call for proposals was announced earlier this year, my mentor and I knew it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed as it would be a significant steppingstone in my career.”

A highly competitive scholarship-for-service program, SMART is one of the largest science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-focused education and workforce initiatives under DoD STEM. Candidates must submit their proposal and have it selected amongst a talented field of scientist and engineers.

Mentorship also plays an instrumental part to help Blevins and Jimenez navigate these waters as well as reach early milestones in their careers. Dr. Matthew Bays, NSWC PCD Senior Scientist for Robotics and Optimization, serves as their mentor and was one the first SMART scholars of the Navy Lab.

“Being a SMART mentor for NSWC PCD SMART scholars, Drs. Ethan Evans, Jorge Jimenez, and Aaron Blevins, has been extremely rewarding, and honestly one of my favorite parts of my job. I love helping enable and empower the next generation of NSWC PCD scientists and engineers to do the cutting-edge research they are passionate about, and the warfighter finds useful, which is exactly what the program is for,” said Bays.

Despite its relatively small size within the DoD’s Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation civilian workforce, the Navy Lab has been successful in being awarded six percent of SMART SEED grants and in hiring talent from the SMART Program. Last year, Evans, NSWC PCD research scientist and SMART scholar, helped clear paths forward for Blevins and Jimenez.

“This program has changed me by inspiring me to remain dedicated to a research area that I am extremely passionate about and enabled me to be bolder,” said Evans. “Receiving the SMART SEED grant was not only validation for the types of research questions that I am interested in answering, but especially with a far-out topic, it enabled me to encourage Blevins and Jimenez to also think about non-traditional ideas that really build off of their dissertations and take our deep expertise to the next level. If anyone has questions or interest in this program, I have an open-door policy.”

The program’s vision is to assist the development of SMART scholars into future DoD subject matter experts in DoD modernization areas and other fields of strategic technical importance.