The Army looks to recruit more scientists

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The Army maintains a network of research laboratories exploring everything from medical materials to new drone technologies. It also works to encourage more young people to get into scientific fields. Matt Willis, director of laboratory management in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for more discussion.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Willis, good to have you in.

Matt Willis: Pleasure to be here.

Tom Temin: Well, tell us about the outreach to educational, I guess it’s the Army Educational Outreach Program. How does that relate to the laboratory work?

Matt Willis: Our educational outreach is intricately linked to the science and technology field across the Army that we are investigating and you know that the Army recognizes that in order for us to and prepare for the future, we need to invest in STEM now, or yesterday, many years ago. And we have, within the Army, to prepare students for future technology careers.

Tom Temin: Let’s talk about the labs themselves for a minute. What exactly do they look at and give us a sense of the scope of the lab network in the Army?

Matt Willis: Sure, so many people don’t recognize that within the Army we have, depending on how you count, about 15 different labs all across the country, ranging from medical laboratories to basic research laboratories to research and engineering centers that study anything from missile technologies, to tanks, to technologies that would be on a soldier, etc. etc. So across the country we have about 25,000 scientists and engineers working in Army labs every day.

Tom Temin: And is that a combination of uniforms and civilian people?

Matt Willis: Yes, so the 25,000 represents a combination of Army civilians, on-site contractor support and people that are in the military.

Tom Temin: And you use, I guess a series of contests and challenges to try to get people interested. There was one recently involving LEGOs. Tell us about that and some of the other types of contests and challenges that you operate.

Matt Willis: Sure, so we really believe that we need to get kids excited about STEM, excited about science, technology, engineering and math. So we have a spectrum of programs in the Army ranging from, to your point STEM enrichment programs targeting elementary/middle school kids to STEM contests where students can actually earn scholarships all the way to opportunities for internships, arriving opportunities for students to work alongside with bench scientists and engineers at our labs.

Tom Temin: And what about recruiting at, say, colleges and universities that specialize in science, math technology — the MITs of the world, if you will — about careers with the Army? Because I imagine many students in those fields probably never considered a career as a civilian, much less a soldier with an Army laboratory.

Matt Willis: Yes, absolutely. So we have extensive outreach to universities, colleges, historically black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions all across the country to, to your point, get them excited and interested and even just cognizant of the fact that you can be a civilian working in an Army lab as a federal employee, which I don’t believe that many students appreciate or understand those opportunities are out there.

Tom Temin: And the lab’s themselves are they pretty much what you would find in the best of the industrial types of labs?

Matt Willis: Yes, absolutely. I mean, they’re working on state-of-the-art, cutting-edge research with the best in anything you think of from clean room technology, to vaccine development, to test beds for testing and developing new technologies.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Matt Willis. He’s director of Laboratory Management in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (ALT). And what about the mission of the Army? Is that something you find in general is a good appeal to people that you would like to get into the STEM field and then at some point into the Army research labs?

Matt Willis: Sure, absolutely. I mean, I think that there is a tremendous amount of students that are out there that find, and, I myself started as an Army civilian working in an Army research laboratory. And there is a tremendous patriotic mission there, as well. And we’re working on really exciting technologies. It’s anywhere from, like I said, before the defense space to medical, to other technologies.

Tom Temin: I mean the strategic offset initiative, which is going back some few years now but really is, I think, heating up now. That must be something that is attractive to people, also.

Matt Willis: Yes, absolutely.

Tom Temin: Is artificial intelligence part of the lab work?

Matt Willis: It is. So there’s  theirs in artificial intelligence machine learning, how to develop technologies and strategies to team with machines or to provide opportunities for machines to do tasks autonomously. And how do we build those interfaces in a robust way so that — they’re certainly more standards when you are sending this technology out in the field protecting our soldiers, than you might have within your cellphone here domestically, where if it breaks, you know it’s a bad day, but it’s not necessarily a catastrophe.

Tom Temin: Sure, and I want to get back to those contests because I was interested in having you tell us about that LEGO idea, because that’s what caught our eye in the first place in this whole endeavor.

Matt Willis: Yeah, we’re really trying to develop or think of unique ways that we can provide opportunities for students to think about engineering, science and math in unique ways that they wouldn’t necessarily think about within their traditional … So one of the the contests or science competitions that we sponsor is called eCYBERMISSION. And it’s really focused, it’s a nationwide, actually international competition where we have teams of students come together to try to solve or develop a solution to a problem in their community. And this could be from an engineering perspective or science perspective. Then they develop their solution. We bring in Army scientists engineers to look at their different technologies that they’ve developed. And ultimately these solutions are graded and evaluated, and students can earn scholarships for future educational opportunities.

Tom Temin: And those that are practicing science in the Army, in the armed services, are they generally part of the greater research establishment? That is to say, do they give papers at conferences, do they get published, do they interact with academia and this kind of thing?

Matt Willis: Absolutely. And so I think that that’s actually a good point that I wanted to make is that the impact of our educational outreach activities is greatly enhanced by the fact that we have actual Army scientists and engineers that are integrated thoroughly throughout all of our programming. So not only do they have the perspective of Army technologies, but yes, they are on the cutting edge. They are publishing papers in Science or Nature, or other academic journals. They’re being invited to give keynote talks at huge academic conferences. Those are the people that we want to engage with these students.

Tom Temin: And as director of laboratory management, what does that mean and what do you do all day?

Matt Willis: So my portfolio contains policy oversight for our workforce, our infrastructure, STEM educational outreach, and how the lab’s engage with private sector. So, really, what the Army is trying to do is to develop an ecosystem where, that demonstrates that we value high impact scientists and engineers to come and work for the Army, be able to engage with the private sector to push technologies out, bring the greatest technologies in and then have this sustainable infrastructure to again engage, inspire and attract the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Tom Temin: Dr. Matt Willis is director of laboratory management in the office of the assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. Thanks so much for joining me.

Matt Willis: Absolutely.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at www.federalnewsnetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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