The Emerging Technology Student Program’s New Frontier
James Ellenbogen and Ruba Emran. Photo: Andy Cleavenger
Author: Russell Woolard
Ruba Emran was assigned the task of exploring what she calls a “science fiction idea”—one that’s been around for a while, but whose time, so far as practical application, has not yet come. A rising sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va., Emran signed up for a summer with MITRE’s Emerging Technologies Summer Student R&D Program. Taking her place as one of 26 students working under the supervision of 24 mentors, Emran drew the task of investigating the engineering of a space elevator. That’s a proposed type of planet-to-space transportation system that would ride on a cable anchored to the Earth’s surface and extend into space, in hopes of making such Earth-to-orbit transportation much more economical.
Ruba’s science-fiction-like problem: What kind of cable should she design? What kind of material would be strong enough to support the enormous mass of a 24,000-mile cable and loads traveling from Earth to space and back? She turned for advice to her MITRE mentor, James Ellenbogen, who suggested that a look at how rope and yarn are made might offer lessons for the space elevator cable. And, in Emran’s mind, science fiction seemed a bit more plausible.
“It gives you an idea of how much technology can do and advance to make some really crazy ideas come true—and how my skills, in particular, can help with some projects that I would have thought were impossible,” Emran says.
A quarter century after it began, the corporate goal of fostering more forward-looking ideas, like the one Emran is developing, drove the Emerging Technologies program to expand substantially this past summer. For example, when the student investigators with the 2018 Emerging Technologies program presented their findings on Aug. 9, they did so in two rooms rather than one and covered two different research tracks. That’s because the program nearly doubled in size—from 14 students in 2017 to 26 this year. It was also more diverse ethnically and gender-wise. Plus, 16 young high school students (like Emran) took part, while there were only two last year. And the investigations covered a more diverse range of disciplines of growing interest to MITRE’s sponsors.
Fresh perspective – and a broader scope
Student investigators Sanjana Meduri (at the keyboard), Neeyanth Kopparapu (standing), and Sarah Gu (at back), along with their machine learning mentors Laura Strickhart (standing with her hand on the EEG cap) and Liz Merkhofer (seated and wearing EEG cap). The team is working in a sealed, electromagnetically shielded room in a MITRE labs, taking an electroencephelogram (EEG) on a subject who is listening to a word, so that they can later use A.I. machine learning techniques to attempt to associate specific brain signals with specific features of spoken language. Photo: Andy Cleavenger
The Emerging Technologies program is now a major undertaking for MITRE. It draws upon contributions from staff at all levels of the company, including many who were not mentors or student investigators. For example, Human Resources expedited the hiring process and ensuring 2018 investigators would be a diverse lot, while the corporate lab directors and facilities staff went the extra mile to find and outfit the large amount of space required for a 26-student R&D program.
And the direction to expand the program came from the top of the company. “I’ve long wanted to expand the Emerging Technologies student R&D program,” says MITRE President and CEO Jason Providakes. “I firmly believe that by attracting a more diverse mix of participants, including high school students, MITRE and our sponsors benefit from these new perspectives. Bringing in those who are avid users of the newest technologies helps us understand how to plot the course for many of our programs, so these students’ contributions to our research is important. Expanding this program is very much aligned to our good growth strategy.”
In its early years, the Emerging Technologies program did include many high school students. But, responding to evolving project and laboratory requirements, until this past summer the age of the student researchers had gradually inched upward. Over the years, the program also has come to feature more non-traditional students—those in their twenties who returned to school to finish their degrees and learn new skills. There were two such students in last year’s program. In addition, the nature of the research has broadened: The Emerging Technologies program cuts across areas like healthcare, information security, robotics, physical and life sciences, and space sciences.
“Even in cases where we’re not directly impacting a specific sponsor requirement, we’re dealing with advanced aspects of basic technologies—such as blockchain, machine learning, and dense energy storage—that cut across many government requirements,” says Ellenbogen, MITRE consulting scientist and the leader of the Emerging Technologies program. “At the same time, we’re doing workforce development, both for the company and for the country.”
Learning from one another
Student investigator Bethany Jackson and her mentor, Daniel Sims, assemble an electronic device for their computer vision system. Photo: Andy Cleavenger
The program has certainly helped Michele Horner sharpen her focus on the kind of work she eventually wants to do. A rising sophomore at the University of Virginia, Horner returned to MITRE for her third summer, investigating ways to improve tracking of objects that orbit Earth. At one point several years ago, Horner was planning to major in biology and medicine, but then switched to astronomy. And this summer, partly as a result of her prior experience at MITRE, she switched the focus of her research as well, working with MITRE mentors to write an algorithm to track satellites using different types of sensors. It was a turning point.
“It made me realize that this is what I want to be doing. I really want to go into physics, and it was really great to see that the things I’ve learned in school will have practical applications in the things I was trying to implement in my task,” Horner says. “It’s really helped me to narrow down what I want to be doing career-wise.”
Such guidance, aimed at helping train the next generation of scientists and engineers, has always been one of the Emerging Technology program’s main goals. Now, with MITRE’s support, the program is helping students see a wider range of possibilities for how they may one day apply their talents. They, and their MITRE mentors, will continue to learn a lot from one another.
“I’ve always seen our program as a way of looking into potentially useful ideas that might not otherwise be explored, or at least not with quite the same MITRE nuance,” Ellenbogen says. “Also, there are very talented adults involved in these explorations, so there’s a lot of development of the adult staff, too. As examples of this, Ellenbogen points to two staff members, Jennifer Lombardo and Nick Serger of the Emerging Technologies department, who participated as college students in the Emerging Technologies summer program in 2016 and 2017, then joined the company as full-time staff this past winter. This past summer, they served as co-leaders of the entire expanded summer program and gained their first managerial experience, while they each mentored a high school student in a research task, as well.
He also points out that since all the forward-looking research topics are being developed by the students in front of the mentors and with their involvement, “These new ideas and the associated staff development will feed into our work program as time moves on in ways that are not always easy to predict but will unquestionably have fairly profound impact.”
Emran is already looking ahead. Listening to other presentations during the program’s final review in August, a number of the projects piqued her interest. Among them: modeling of energy storage devices, which “would be very interesting, although I might not have the prerequisite knowledge just yet to do that.”
But now, she’s looking into changing that.
Russell Woolard writes for MITRE’s Strategic Communications department.
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