SIAM News Blog

A Deeper Look at Life Within the Army and Air Force Research Laboratories

By Lina Sorg

Many career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are available within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD): the largest federal government agency in the country. The three military departments that comprise DoD—the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force—all employ applied mathematicians and computational scientists in various roles and capacities. These departments are further subdivided into numerous research laboratories and directorates that are dedicated to cutting-edge scientific discovery and technological innovation at the interfaces between traditional research fields.

To get a sense of mathematics-based career paths within specific sections of DoD, SIAM News connected with Daniel Eckhardt of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Robert Martin of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Army Research Laboratory (ARL). They spoke about the laboratories’ objectives and focal points, discussed their individual roles and projects, and offered guidance for early-career researchers and SIAM members who are interested in governmental work in DoD settings.

SIAM News: Tell us a little bit about the respective missions and foci of ARL and AFRL.

Robert Martin: Both the Army and Air Force research labs invest significantly in the basic research end of the spectrum — they focus on very early concepts. I want to emphasize this dedication to basic research; the product is forward-looking research that can be published openly, and you really get to engage in the work. I think that inability to publish is a common misconception about DoD, but we’re really looking for exceptional open research and the best ideas to drive the frontiers of science.

I was formerly at AFRL with Dan and recently switched to DEVCOM ARL in September 2021, where I work in the office that funds extramural fundamental research. Our job is to develop the basic research ecosystem in the U.S. and internationally. Even beyond ARL, we work indirectly with the supporting industries that feed up into ARL to develop the workforce.

Daniel Eckhardt: AFRL’s mission is to lead the discovery and development of technologies and technology solutions for the U.S. Department of the Air Force. The basic research that we’re interested in occurs on 10-year- and 30-year-horizon types of timescales. AFRL is split into multiple different technical directorates; there’s a Space Vehicles Directorate, Directed Energy Directorate, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, and so forth. Like Rob said, you’re not going to face publication restrictions. And with the creation of Space Force several years ago, AFRL now promotes a “one lab, two services” idea, meaning that the breadth of research topics is very extensive. Each service typically has its own lab, but you’ll find both Air Force and Space Force in AFRL.

SN: Can you explain the concept of Space Force?

A SPT-100 Hall-effect thruster in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s In-Space Propulsion Branch. Figure courtesy of [1].
DE: Right now, everything space is very exciting. Space Force aims to make space resilient, democratize space access, and certify that our commercial and allied partners can safely access space. I work in the rocket propulsion division—which is part of the Aerospace Systems Directorate—and we develop models for everything rocket-related, from engines to in-space propulsion. We also develop and test hardware. I concentrate on thrusters, but other people work on sensors, the environment, space weather, and plasma physics.

Being part of something new and watching it grow is pretty awesome. The neat thing about Space Force is that it’s aiming to be a fully digital service while remaining as lean as possible when compared to more traditional services. Because much of the work for Space Force takes place behind a terminal or in a lab rather than in the field, AFRL is emphasizing a variety of STEM disciplines and trying to hire a lot of technical people.

SN: What kinds of projects are you currently working on?

DE: My main job is electric in-space propulsion, so we generate thrusters for different spacecraft. This work has an applied component where we test actual flight hardware, as well as a research component where we envision the types of space assets that DoD will need in 30 years. Then we begin to create the technology, since technology development takes a very long time.

When you build a spacecraft and send it to space, you can’t go up and fix it like you would a car if something breaks. Much of our work thus involves developing techniques that can help us understand rare events and emergent behaviors, which is very fun.

RM: I started out with high-fidelity plasma physics modeling at AFRL, so I was doing computational mathematics directly. After I switched to ARL, the application changed significantly but the underlying mathematics remained the same. I’m now a program manager for the Modeling of Complex Systems Program, which is more application-agnostic — it can apply to social networks, pandemics, or mechanical systems. Our math branch also includes programs in biomathematics and computational mathematics, so I differentiate the modeling of complex systems from other math programs with an emphasis on inverse and outer-loop problems. I’m still interested in verification and validation as well, especially model validation for rare events when the data are sparse.

SN: What does a typical workday look like for each of you?

RM: I was actually the first remote program manager for the extramural research program at ARL; I’m in Milwaukee, Wis., and most of the other program managers are in North Carolina. A big piece of the program management role involves interacting with principal investigators (PIs). I spend most of the week receiving and reviewing white papers and grants, then I talk with the proposers about how their ideas fit within my program — or try to route them to some of ARL’s other programs. There is also a lot of coordinating the program within the bigger picture to support the future Army.

DE: If I’m onsite, I check in with my team about whatever we’re working on and discuss future steps. I do work remotely some days, but I usually go into the lab because I run an experimental group that needs to be physically present to actually perform the experiments. We typically meet with the modeling and simulation folks— who are more remote than we are—and information dump to assess progress.

In terms of research projects, we either work alone or in small teams of two to three people. Our basic research operates very similarly to the way that academics run their research at a university: we write a proposal, get funding for it, and work on it until the next cycle comes around.

SN: Have you experienced a shift in work or funding priorities over the last several years?

DE: Because basic research is mostly forward looking, the priorities don’t change that drastically across administrations and leadership. But with space becoming very interesting these days, there’s been a priority increase on space research and a push to involve more of the domestic community with space-related work. Only a handful of universities pursue research that is relevant to space efforts, so DoD is attempting to democratize this endeavor and make sure that it extends across the entire nation. In general, DoD is working to tap into a broad cross-section of the nation’s research talent with initiatives such as Defense Established Programs to Stimulate Competitive Research (DEPSCoR). In addition, AFRL is reaching out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to broaden the country’s tech base. Good things come out of expanding beyond the traditional work base, including a diverse workplace and diversity of ideas and people.

RM: Dan mentioned DEPSCoR, which offers a separate line of funding from the broader DoD and targets states and institutions with fewer research projects. In addition, ARL’s extramural research programs emphasize HBCUs and MSIs to engage them with our ecosystem.

Site visit with the summer undergraduate mathematics interns who participated in an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)-sponsored project for the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics’ (IPAM) 2019 Research in Industrial Projects for Students (RIPS) program. From left to right: Daniel Eckhardt, Abhishek Shivkumar, Brianna Fitzpatrick, Becks Lopez, Mykhaylo Malakhov, and Robert Martin. Photo courtesy of the 2019 IPAM RIPS AFRL team.

SN: What advice would you offer to early-career mathematicians who hope to pursue government positions?

DE: It’s funny because I’m actually coded as an aerospace engineer, but I got my degree in mathematics. And Rob is a mathematician, but he got his degree in engineering. So my advice is not to look at a position’s title and instead look at what you bring to a particular opportunity. I got into AFRL through the National Research Council’s Research Associateship Programs, which are a great way for fresh, young Ph.D.s to experience the type of work that government labs do. I came out here, fell in love with it, and the rest is history.

RM: I think Dan nailed it with the research associateship programs, which vary by lab; for instance, ARL’s Research Associateship Program is run by Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Some even include opportunities for junior- and senior-level researchers, in addition to postdoctoral positions. Going to research conferences in your field and interacting with folks from the labs is also a great networking opportunity. I got my first job at AFRL because I went to one of these conferences and met my future boss there. ARL even sponsors some research conferences that unite people from different communities and advance career development.

On the extramural side, the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs encourage small business to partake in federal research and development. All government agencies have them, and interesting opportunities arise through those channels.

SN: How can SIAM members explore possible career paths or opportunities for involvement with ARL and AFRL?

DE: AFRL runs internships every summer via its Scholars Program. We also have the Summer Faculty Fellowship Program, where early-career faculty can apply for a grant and spend a summer working with Air Force researchers. In addition, AFRL maintains educational research partnerships with universities and directly funds research or visiting faculty members.

There are also program reviews. A list of all Air Force Office of Scientific Research programs is available on the All Partners Access Network, and you don’t have to be a PI to attend program reviews — you just have to register or request an invitation. You can meet the program officers who give grants to universities and see if the type of research in their portfolios fits with what you’re doing.

RM: When I was in Los Angeles, I attended a lot of Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics workshops at the University of California, Los Angeles. Now I virtually attend some events by the Institute for Mathematical and Statistical Innovation, which runs long programs twice a year with really interesting topics. I also often go to American Physical Society conferences, and SIAM conferences of course. DoD folks are present at all of these events, so they are good opportunities for engagement.

Even just reading published papers and looking at the coauthors can be helpful. If you’re passionate about an article topic and see that one of the coauthors is from a DoD lab, reaching out to them is a great way to make connections.

[1] Nakles, M., Holmes, M., & Hargus Jr., W. (2015). An investigation into the spectral imaging of Hall thruster plumes. Paper presented at the 34th international electric propulsion conference (IEPC-2015-416). Kobe, Japan.

Lina Sorg is the managing editor of SIAM News
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