SMART Scholarship intern shares passion with high schoolers

Katrina Colucci-Chang, an intern working with NAWCAD's Human Systems Engineering Department, talks to high school students about a Navy pilot's specialized flight suit during a presentation featuring biomedical engineering at a Hispanic College Institute event July 20.

For the fourth consecutive year, Katrina Colucci-Chang shared her love of biomedical engineering with more than 150 high school juniors and seniors attending the Hispanic College Institute, held at Virginia Tech University July 18-21.

Colucci-Chang, working with NAWCAD’s Human Systems Engineering Department, is an intern with the Science Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship-for-Service Program.

Her July 20 workshop – “Engineering on a Hunch” – lasted three hours, with 50 new students rotating through every hour.

“It started with me and three other colleagues talking about our disciplines, and afterward it broke into three demonstrations that took about 30 minutes each,” explained Colucci-Chang, who is studying for her PhD at Virginia Tech.

The demonstration told the story of of a Navy pilot and the specialized flight suit he’s required to wear and why – from the necessary G-suit to prevent blood from pooling in his legs and feet, which would cause a loss of consciousness, to his [survival] vest, to his boots and how he “does his business” while flying. Student volunteers also donned the clothing so they could experience the inflated G-suit and the vest, which weighs about 40 pounds.

“The whole point of it was to show that clothing may look simple, but it all has a purpose,” she said. “Biomedical, mechanical, and electrical engineers, clothing designers, and so many more people had to work together to design these suits. It takes a collective effort, intelligence and patience to come up with something like this.”

There’s a reason why Colucci-Chang is asked to return to the event each year. Her demonstration is one of the more popular, with about 80 percent of the student attendees stopping by to listen.

“I feel like I really make an impact on these kids and I love it,” she noted. “The kids ask me pretty much everything [about the pilot’s clothing], but some ask me more about my life, like how I became an engineer, do I like what I’m doing, where do I see myself in the future, and where do I see the field of biomedical engineering going. The fact that every year I get at least five kids asking for my email and to be their mentor must mean I’m doing something right.”

Doing it right at NAWCAD

For more than a decade, the SMART Scholarship-for-Service Program has been helping build the DoD workforce with talented, innovative and brilliant scientists, engineers and researchers. It offers the opportunity for students pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in STEM disciplines to receive a full scholarship. In return, program scholars are required to commit to summer internships with a sponsoring facility while in school, and upon completion of their degree, a one-to-one year service commitment; that is, one year of civilian employment at their sponsoring facility for every academic year they receive a financial award.

The timing was right for the Human Systems Engineering Department when they learned of Colucci-Chang’s application.

“Her application was forwarded to me by someone in my management chain for review,” said Paul Gilmore, head of the Body Mounted Systems Branch. “About that same time, it was announced the department would be standing up an Aeromedical Engineering Division, for which Katrina seemed like an excellent candidate. My division head agreed that we should not miss the opportunity to recruit her on behalf of the new division.”

Since beginning her internship in May, Gilmore said Colucci-Chang has been helping with statistical analyses of anthropometric data – body measurements – looking for both changes over time and differences between naval aircrew populations and other standard military anthropometric studies/databases

“She’s also been working with our oxygen systems team to study some potential improvements to oxygen concentrator designs,” he added. “One of the nice features of the SMART Program is, because of its structure, the program allows us to retain and train a bright young engineer without the stress of convincing a customer to fund someone who is a potential unknown variable. It also makes it possible to have the intern work on projects which might otherwise be difficult to fund, such as basic research or data collection efforts.”

Active in STEM outreach and diversity events, Colucci-Chang’s involvement with organizations such as the Virginia Latino Higher Education Network, which sponsored the Virginia Tech event, can prove beneficial to the DoD.

“In this specific case, she was able to show high school students both the field of biomedical engineering and some of the military lifesaving applications of the field,” Gilmore said. “This is a real win-win, as afterward, several students expressed to her that she made them interested in working with military applications.”

Collucci-Chang is looking forward to working with NAWCAD after graduation.

“I’m happy because I feel I’m in the right place, helping our military perform better,” she said. “It’s why I wanted to go in to biomedical; I want to help people to perform their task better and be more efficient and productive without compromising their health.”

Likewise, Gilmore is glad to have her onboard.

“This is my first time working with the SMART Program,” he noted. “Katrina is a very bright, motivated engineer with a genuine desire to introduce others to a field she has talent in.”

According to the Chief Technology Office, which coordinates the program at Patuxent River, there were 12 SMART scholars interning across the installation this summer in the fields of chemistry; chemical, electrical, biomedical, and aerospace engineering; physics; materials science and engineering; computer and computational sciences; and computer engineering.

To learn more about the SMART Scholarship-for-Service Program, and how to apply, visit https://smartscholarshipprod.service-now.com/smart. The application window is open August through December each year.