DEVCOM CBC Successfully Hosts Summer Interns Despite COVID-19 Challenges

DEVCOM CBC Successfully Hosts Summer Interns Despite COVID-19 Challenges

By Jerilyn Coleman

For the fourth summer, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center (DEVCOM CBC) hosted 18 graduate and undergraduate students during the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Historically Black Colleges & Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions (HBCU/MI) Summer Research Program.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the Center’s facilities was restricted and personnel were inspired to be flexible and creative under unique circumstances. However, Center leaders proved that a global pandemic is not an excuse to miss an opportunity to invest in the next generation of thought leaders in the chemical biological space.

Supported by the DoD’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering/Research, Technology & Laboratories, the HBCU/MI program is administered by the Department of the Army. The program provides a bridge between the classroom and real-world experiences and aims to increase the number of minority scientists and engineers throughout the DoD. The initiative encourages students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, guides them toward advanced studies and prepares them for careers in science and engineering fields important to the defense mission. Once placed at a DoD facility, students conduct research under the supervision of scientists and engineers. At the Center, leaders ensured that scholars from several illustrious HBCUs had innovative and relevant projects to work on.

The 10-week program is a partnership with the DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory (ARL). It ran from June 1 to August 7, 2020 and is offered to students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average and have excellent community involvement. Candidates are required to complete an application and write an essay that highlights why the program would benefit their career goals.

Image of Eugene L. Vickers
Eugene L. Vickers, supervisory chemist and chief of the Engineering Operations Division, led the Center’s HBCU/MI Student Research Program.

Eugene L. Vickers, Sr., supervisory chemist and chief of the Engineering Operations Division, spearheads facilities operations in all Engineering Directorate buildings comprehensive of engineering, engineering services, building maintenance, emergency service activities and more. Vickers, a Tuskegee University graduate, leads the HBCU/MI program at the Center and has served as site coordinator for the past three summers. He is charged with the task of matching the chosen interns with mentors and DoD facilities. Vickers’s role is to act as organization liaison, identify mentors, assist mentors with student selection, conduct agency specific orientation and assist with facilitating mentor evaluations.

Vickers decided to bring this program to the Center after attending a conference geared toward minority professionals four years ago. From there, he teamed up with ARL and obtained three students the first year. In the second year, the program expanded, and Vickers was able to add mentors for additional support and his program grew to five students. This year, 18 students participated from schools including Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University, California State University-Dominguez Hill, Kentucky State University, Tennessee State University, Tuskegee University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, University Texas-San Antonio, Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University, Jackson State University, Southern University and Norfolk State University. “Now we’re growing and serving the Center and other DoD agencies,” Vickers said.

The program mentors are at the heart of providing an enriching experience for the students. They welcome interns to the Center, help them set goals, establish research projects and objectives and help them access necessary facilities, programs and equipment.

Image of Jarell Johnson
Computer scientist Jarell Johnson served as a mentor in the HBCU/MI Student Research Program.

Jarell Johnson, computer scientist for the Engineering Operations Directorate and Southern University graduate, executed his duties as a mentor by assigning a challenging task to his interns, despite the unique state of COVID-19. “I made a point to invest time in the interns and investigate their career goals, needs and interests,” Johnson said. “This helped drive their respective projects and helped me understand what they wanted to gain out of the program.”

Johnson added that it was crucial to assign projects that were interesting, challenging and reflected real world scenarios. Johnson’s strategy was to allow the interns to explore alternatives to various defense issues and defend their solutions to him. “I never told them how to do things,” he said. “I let them explore and bring their findings back to me. From there, we would evaluate their reasoning together.”

Johnson held frequent meetings to check in with his interns. He even took the initiative to offer professional development opportunities; helping the students with their resumes and connecting them with his professional contacts. He reflected on the privilege and significance of mentoring three Black women in STEM and he wanted to make sure they were able to see themselves in leadership roles in their career areas. He scheduled virtual meetings between the interns and other women of color who are leaders in their fields. “I didn’t join the calls because I wanted them to feel free and comfortable speaking about issues that matter to them most with people who look like them. A lot of the women they spoke to were former interns that were mentored through a similar minority program,” Johnson said. “They were meeting what could be themselves in 10 to 15 years.”

Among the bright scholars in this year’s mentoring class were three students who shared their experience at the Center.

Image of Mark Eldridge
Mark Eldridge, a junior aerospace engineering major at Prairie View A&M University.

Mark Eldridge, a junior aerospace engineering major at Prairie View A&M University and second-time HBCU/MI intern, supported building renovations at the Center, bringing a fresh new look to the base. Eldridge discovered the HBCU/MI program in 2018 when attending the Black Engineer of the Year Awards and interned for the first time in 2019. He returned this year and has continuously proven to be a champion for the Center’s program by encouraging students at his university to apply. “This internship has had a large impact on me and my university because attending and participating in programs targeting minority and underrepresented students is something I never thought my peers and I would be able to experience,” Eldridge said.

Lauri Kight
Lauri Kight, a senior mathematics and physics major at Southern University.

Lauri Kight, a senior mathematics and physics major at Southern University, also participated in this summer’s program. She worked to develop a mobile application that gives the public important health and safety information about the pandemic. Her tasks included reading, research and coding.

Gerita Cochran, a graduate student at Norfolk State University majoring in cybersecurity, worked on a project for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency where she researched the Center’s needs for public access on the website. Participants find this program to have an invaluable benefit. It allows emerging minority professionals to be mentored and to gain firsthand work experience. “Being able to apply everything that I’ve studied over the last two years to this actual environment is helpful,” Cochran said. “I’m putting what I learned in school to work. It helps you realize that there’s a lot more to learn outside of the classroom.” Kight agreed. “Sometimes you can’t fathom what the workforce will look like until you’re in it. Working for the federal government, I’ve seen diverse career fields and now it feels real that I could really be here one day,” she said. The interns weren’t the only ones who benefited from the program, having brilliant and eager minds spend time working on important projects at the Center also contributed to the Center’s goals for warfighter Safety.

Image of Simeon Sykes
Simeon Sykes, a senior electrical engineering major with a concentration in nuclear power at Alabama A&M University (AAMU).

Simeon Sykes, an intern who focused on artificial intelligence (AI), was invited to present his research to Center leaders. His presentation has helped leaders understand the Center’s next steps into the AI space. Interns also helped the Center develop solutions for authentication on the websites related to security protocol.

Since its inception, Vickers has been able to cultivate the HBCU/MI program and match interns with various agencies throughout the DoD such as Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army for Test and Evaluation. “By branching out to agencies beyond the Center, this helps us market ourselves and receive funding to get the Soldiers what they need,” Vickers noted.

This year’s program looked different than previous summers because the interns successfully completed their internship entirely in a virtual environment. While there were challenges, the mentors, coordinators and students found innovative ways to carry out their missions. Typically, interns would be housed in a hotel, work in a facility with Center personnel and have in-person meetings. In fact, mentors struggled to figure out what projects they could assign that did not require the physical presence of an intern. “I gave my interns a project that I normally wouldn’t assign,” Johnson explained. “I tasked them with building a mobile application. Because COVID-19 is a critical health concern right now and since we couldn’t work on anything work related, I thought it was best to work on something that was relevant to the pandemic but could also leverage the Center.” This project ultimately helped get information out to the workforce and gave the interns a chance to work on a meaningful project despite the restrictions brought on by the pandemic.

The interns had their own individual challenges with working remotely, though some voiced that there were benefits to working in a virtual environment. Eldridge said he usually likes to have face-to-face interactions with people, but the experience taught him to be more comfortable in virtual meetings and showed that although we’re in different places, we’re still connected. The interns unanimously agreed that Microsoft Teams was an asset. Kight found the screen share feature especially useful when needing additional help or instruction on a subject matter. Although this experience wasn’t a traditional one, they all thought that it prepared them for the future. “Next year, I’ll begin my own career and because of this virtual experience, I won’t be worried about interacting with others when we’re not face-to face. This internship prepared me for the real world,” Eldridge said.

Moving forward, Vickers expects to see the HBCU/MI Summer Research Program expand. His team is strategizing how to access talent from a wider variety of schools and they’re thinking about how to improve the program if COVID-19 persists next year. As each internship cohort leaves, Vickers and his team of mentors are dedicated to staying in touch with the students and offering professional development support beyond the 10 weeks. Gerita Cochran had one piece of advice to future interns. “A lot of us are high achievers, and we all have that perfectionist state of mind, otherwise we wouldn’t be in this program, but don’t be so hard on yourself,” she said. “Take a breath every once in a while and enjoy the moment.”