Internship provides inspiration for scientists and engineers, both seasoned and new

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – For some students, summer means lifeguarding or scooping ice cream. For others, it means generating synthetic data using Generative Adversarial Networks, or researching convolutional sparse representations.

This summer, 86 hand-picked interns from 48 universities (and two high schools) are spending their summer researching topics devised by scientists and engineers doing top-level work for the Department of Defense – more specifically, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Sensors Directorate.

Ed Zelnio, a Sensors Directorate researcher, runs the Autonomous Technology Research Center, or ATRC program, which is in its 10th year, as a way to support and encourage the best and brightest students of science, engineering, technology and math in their work while exposing them to the benefits and opportunities of a career with the DOD.

“We do this for several reasons,” Zelnio said. “We get high-quality research done in new areas at a relatively low cost. It also helps the mentors refresh their skills.”

Mentors are chosen from Sensors Directorate’s deep pool of scientists and engineers. By volunteering as a mentor, they gain valuable assistance with their own research. Most of the summer work is done in otherwise empty space at Wright State, while others work out of the Wright Brothers Institute. A few students are placed on base at Wright-Patterson.

Dr. Theresa Scarnati, a mathematician, was an intern with the program for two summers before being hired by AFRL. After earning her Ph.D, Scarnati volunteered as a mentor for the program. This year, she supervises five students working on projects she designed.

“Before coming to Dayton as an intern, I didn’t even know working for the DOD was an option,” she said. “I thought it was either industry or academia.”

For Scarnati, the AFRL internship provided both a career connection and a love connection: She met her fiancé, Dr. Chris Paulson, a Sensors Directorate electrical engineer and ATRC mentor, during a Dayton summer.

“He organized the summer social events,” Scarnati said. “We have game nights, we went to Cedar Point … when I started working (at AFRL), we started dating.”

Dr. Fred Garber, an engineering professor at Wright State and Mr. Zelnio’s partner in running the ATRC program, is consistently amazed at the quality of the students chosen for the program.

“It floors me every year,” he said. “They come from places all over, begin working on projects they have no idea about with somebody they just met, and they ramp up the learning curve within the week. We have more leaders than followers.”