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From Battlefield to Lab Bench

NSF research program helps vets shape careers at ENG.

US military personnel frequently return from active duty with marketable knowledge and skills, but find it difficult to parlay their experience into well-paying jobs. Cliff Chan came to Boston University hoping to go from being a technician to being an engineer. Chris Stockbridge was interested in becoming a civilian engineer working at a national military research lab.

A program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is helping both BU students achieve their goals. Launched in 2011, the Veterans Research Supplement Program (VRS) supports post-9/11 veterans at selected colleges and universities, allowing them to participate in industrially relevant research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—fields where job openings far outpace the supply of qualified US applicants.

Since the program’s creation, the College of Engineering’s NSF Industry/University Collaborative Research Center for Biophotonic Sensors & Systems has welcomed the opportunity to engage veterans in research.

“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,” says Thomas Bifano, director of BU’s Photonics Center and an ENG professor of mechanical engineering. “VRS gives them the opportunity to take on such projects and pursue careers in research, which is the main engine of our economy.”

At BU, veterans Chan and Stockbridge have thrived in faculty-supervised summer projects funded by VRS, emerging not only with new research skills but also a well-defined career path.

Chan (ENG’15) was deployed four times to the Middle East and Southeast Asia as an Air Force guidance and control specialist before arriving at BU in 2010, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in electrical engineering. With a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of California, San Diego, and a résumé that includes two years’ developing software for an electronic health records company and four years’ maintaining aircraft control systems for the Air Force, Chan hoped to become an engineer, designing the kinds of technologies he used during his military service.

Wanting to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering without having to start from scratch, Chan chose ENG because of its Late Entry Accelerated Program (LEAP). Like all LEAP students, he spent his first year taking undergraduate engineering courses to get up to speed, but got his first taste of engineering design the following summer, thanks to a grant from the VRS program.

Christopher Stockbridge (ENG’15) in Bifano’s Precision Optics Research Lab.Photo by Sanna McDanielHe spent three months working in the Biomicroscopy Lab of Jerome Mertz, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering. At the lab, he developed software that enables microscopes to provide high-contrast images of biological samples in real time.

Chan was used to getting explicit instructions in the Air Force and had never worked in a research lab. “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,” he says. “It opened up my eyes to another world.”

Subsequently hired to work full-time in the Biomicroscopy Lab while completing his degree, Chan has continued to advance microscopy techniques aimed at improving medical diagnostic imaging. The experience has led him, he says, to consider working in research and development for defense and other industries, conducting experiments and designing devices with real-world applications.

It has also prepared him to work through the inevitable unexpected challenges that arise in developing new technologies.

“What I like about Cliff is that he’s undaunted,” says 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.”

Stockbridge (ENG’15) returned to civilian life after five years as an officer and combat engineer in the Army. During two tours of duty in Iraq, he says, he came to appreciate the engineering behind technologies used to protect soldiers, including devices used to search for and destroy roadside bombs. With a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the US Military Academy at West Point, he applied to ENG’s PhD program in mechanical engineering with the goal of becoming a civilian engineer.

“I came to BU to study microelectromechanical 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,” he says.

Supported last summer by the VRS program, Stockbridge was the lead student in an NSF-funded project in Bifano’s Precision Optics Research Lab and 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 extrasolar planets.

“The primary benefit to me from this project was spending more time doing hands-on MEMS fabrication work,” says Stockbridge, who had previously 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.”

“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,” says 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.”