CHARLESTON, S.C. (NNS) -- Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic aims to simplify how employees earn post-graduate education through the Department of Defense (DoD) sponsored Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship program.
The defense department pioneered the SMART program more than 10 years ago after recognizing that many qualified employees or potential recruits wanted to earn their master's or doctorate degrees, but didn't have the resources or time to do it.
"SSC Atlantic's number one priority is the warfighter, and our people are our most important asset," said SSC Atlantic Executive Director Chris Miller. "We're focused on investing in our workforce's careers and education, and the SMART program is testament to that."
The SMART Scholarship program provides students with support they need to pursue continuing education while maintaining their careers - or potential future careers - at SSC Atlantic. Once chosen through a highly competitive application and selection process, scholars receive funding for tuition, books and travel. Financial support even includes a yearly stipend that amounts to anywhere from $28,000 to $31,000.
Recruitment scholars - scholars recruited to work at SSC Atlantic through the program - are promised a full-time position upon graduation and are required to intern each summer at their sponsoring lab. Retention scholars - scholars already employed by SSC Atlantic - are promised their position will be waiting for them when they return from school. Depending on how many years a scholar uses the SMART program for financial aid, he or she could have anywhere from a one to four year service commitment to SSC Atlantic.
"You have a guaranteed job when you graduate," says computer scientist and SMART program director La'Keisha Williams. "And your starting salary will be very similar to anyone else graduating from college depending on whether you're graduating with your bachelor's, master's or Ph.D."
The SMART program also offers mentorship and a network of resources students wouldn't have access to if they had gone back to school on their own dime.
"Each scholar gets a mentor within the lab where they are interning who serves as their person of contact," said Williams. "And they can contact their mentor for anything, like a question related to their degree, or just 'where should I live when I return this summer?"
The mentoring, financial support and job security make the SMART scholarship application process fiercely competitive each year. Once awarded, the scholar's job isn't over; even with all the support, it can still be extremely difficult to come out the other end with a high-level degree.
"It was really hard," said Dr. Jamie Lyle, a recruit scholar who earned a Ph.D. in computer science. "It was stressful because of all the paperwork that comes with being a scholar, and earning the degree was stressful in itself." To earn her degree, Lyle wrote a dissertation on biometrics research, using facial recognition to identify a person whose photo was taken under non-ideal circumstances, such as poor lighting or blurriness.
Still, Lyle thinks her experience with the SMART program was very beneficial. "I didn't have to get a job while earning my degree because the stipend paid plenty, and it was nice to come to Charleston and visit every summer, knowing I had a job ready for me when I returned for good."
Lyle now works in Charleston, South Carolina, continuing her research on biometrics and working on other projects that use machine learning and pattern recognition.
Matthew Zaber, currently pursuing his Ph.D. in computer science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, joined the SMART program as a retention scholar in the fall of 2015.
Zaber has worked in Charleston at SSC Atlantic since 2005 and is on track to earn his Ph.D. by the end of fiscal year 2019. Though a scholar normally returns to SSC Atlantic each summer to resume their role as an intern, Zaber hasn't yet returned because of the prestigious professional opportunities offered to him around the globe.
"The first summer, in 2016, I began working with a group from SSC Atlantic based in San Antonio," he said. "And last summer I was selected to participate in collaborative research in the UK."
Zaber works directly towards SSC Atlantic's cybersecurity technical growth area, focusing on secure execution on untrusted platforms and investigating mechanisms to provide confidentiality and integrity to applications, even if the operating system or hypervisor (virtual machine monitor) they're running on is compromised. This cross-cutting area of cybersecurity impacts a variety of scenarios that directly affects the safety of the warfighter.
"My own academic skills have matured during my studies, but the SMART program has also supplemented this with a breadth of experience that gives context to how basic research can transition into operational capability," said Zaber. "This 'big picture' view will frame my work going forward."
Program-wide, the number of scholars awarded continues to climb. There were 239 SMART scholars in 2016 and 343 in 2017. Since the program's first cohort at SSC Atlantic in 2007, six retention scholars and 17 recruitment scholars have completed the program. Of the six retention scholars, five are still employed by either SSC Atlantic or another federal agency. Of the 17 recruitment scholars, 11 are still employed by SSC Atlantic.
Whether it's investing in current employees or future employees, the SMART program's success falls directly in line with SSC Atlantic's strategic vision of maintaining and growing a skilled workforce.
"Leveraging DoD funding to encourage the pursuit of higher education in our workforce is a no-brainer," Miller said. "Running a scholarship program that not only helps our workforce achieve their personal career goals but also benefits SSC Atlantic and the warfighter - that's a win-win."
The DoD SMART program is only one of several programs used by SSC Atlantic to invest in the workforce. Williams runs a handful of other programs sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, including the Summer Faculty Research Program, in which SSC Atlantic funds summer research project visits from academia; the Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program, a high school internship program; and its sister program for college students, the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program. All are fueled by SSC Atlantic's mission to invest in its people, their education, diversity, and cultivating the country's future workforce.
SSC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (C4ISR), cyber and information technology (IT) capabilities.
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