Research at the Extreme Helps Students Forge Their Path for a Career in 2030 and Beyond

photo of rebekah sweat and tarik dickens engineering faculty at famu-fsu college of engineering in the lab

Rebekah Sweat (left) and Tarik Dickens, faculty in industrial and manufacturing engineering at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, recently formed the Gulf Coast Consortium: Materials-At-The-Extreme (MATE) program, which aims to increase research and educational opportunities in advanced materials processing, especially at the high school level and beyond. (M Wallheiser/FAMU-FSU Engineering)

A new research program at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering via Florida A&M University promises to produce a robust, well-trained and diverse workforce for the future—and the high-tech materials needed for harsh new frontiers like deep space.

The new project funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) - Department of Energy (DOE) is dubbed NNSA Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (MSIPP) Gulf Coast Consortium: Materials-At-The-Extreme (MATE). It aims to increase research and educational opportunities in advanced materials processing, especially at the high school level and beyond.  

MSIPP-MATE is a consortium led by researchers at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering with collaborators from Prairie View A&M University, Sandia National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory to provide opportunities for high school students to accelerate into aspiring STEM careers. 

“We are building a foundational pathway of engineering success and identity, especially for underrepresented minority students,” said Tarik Dickens, an associate professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at the college, researcher at Florida State University’s High-Performance Materials Institute and principal investigator for the program. “We must proactively spread the word to high-qualified high school students that a career in engineering and STEM at this point in history is a critical step in moving humanity forward.”

Dickens describes the new program as a conduit where advanced manufacturing meets materials development and testing for extreme environments. 

For the federal government, the program addresses not only important engineering research goals, but also the critically low number of underrepresented minorities in higher levels of STEM.

As a part of the MATE consortium, “Sandia National Laboratories aims to provide support to successfully incorporate the minority-serving and Historically Black College/University community into our facility,” explained LaRico Treadwell, Ph.D., R&D Chemist and Material Scientist at the national lab. “We want to yield tangible results in research and development, education and outreach, to properly address the MSIPP program’s crucial success factors: workforce development, research and education.”

The project engages researchers from universities and national laboratories specializing in materials science, chemistry, physics and engineering. Each partner brings unique strengths to the program.

To kick off the program, MSIPP-MATE is holding an Extreme Materials Symposium on June 27-28, 2023 at the High Performance Materials Institute. Get more info on the event page.

Merlyn Pulikkathara, an assistant professor in the department of chemistry and physics at Prairie View A&M (PVAMU) said, “From undergraduate years at PVAMU, I fell in love with research, and that love for research carried me through Ph.D. Now, and I hope to pass along that love and skill sets for research to our students and forward into their careers in STEM.”

Richard Wilkins, project co-director and an associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at PVAMU, runs the NASA Center for Radiation Engineering Science and Space Exploration (CRESSE), which has trained STEM students since 2005. The center is able to mimic extreme radioactive environments not found elsewhere—a prime testing location for advanced materials engineered at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.

“CRESSE has conducted research at the national labs since 1998 and this project gives us the opportunity to continue this pipeline,” Wilkins explained. “We hope this will be a new model for HBCUs partnering together.” 

MSIPP-MATE will push the boundaries in integrating material science, environmental and in-situ testing, machine learning and materials modeling to find fundamental principles of how materials affect performance in hypersonic, nuclear, marine and other extreme environments critical to national security. 

For the NNSA, MSIPP-MATE provides unique synergy. The FAMU-FSU College of Engineering will provide crucial advanced manufacturing tools materials for PVAMU to evaluate in their unique nuclear testing environments. 

“The program is different because it will train students on testing and modeling materials at the extremes—in radiation and scorching environments, which will work towards capabilities that could only be dreamed of previously—including deep space travel and hypersonic flight,” said Rebekah Sweat, an assistant professor in industrial and manufacturing engineering at the joint college and a MSIPP-MATE researcher.

She believes MSIPP-MATE’s hybrid introduction to fundamental STEM research and study will be a new opportunity for students. By “learning engineering” in the lab and the classroom simultaneously through the program, they will tackle industrial problems in materials development and the also test those materials for the extreme environments in which they must perform. 

The FAMU-University Scholarship Program (USP) has partnered with the MSSIP-Gulf Coast Consortium to identify STEM high school students interested in pursuing STEM Ph.D. degree programs. Graduating high school seniors should contact the scholarship office no later than September 1, 2023. Those seeking scholarship opportunities must be admitted to FAMU by October 15. Rising juniors and seniors, as well as graduating seniors may apply for the FAMU-USP STEM summer bridge program.

Fundamentally, Dickens and his colleagues want to increase the proportion of underrepresented minorities in engineering research and faculty positions. With the MSIPP-MATE program, the team expects to increase research, education and career opportunities at regional institutions focused on advanced material processing. By fostering student growth and establishing career pathways, they aim to build a future advanced materials program with a sustainable model of support for underrepresented students that will carry them through engineering graduate school.  

The University Scholarship Program at Florida A&M University is an initial MSIPP-MATE consortium partner to identify STEM high school students interested in pursuing advanced degrees in STEM fields.

“We want to create a pipeline from STEM bachelors to doctorate degree,” said Dedra A. O’Neal, Director of University Scholarship Programs at FAMU. The partnership will help identify, recruit and train the advanced materials engineering and manufacturing engineers of the future.

MSIPP-MATE is funded by a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration to promote the development of diverse students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields who may find careers with the NNSA.

Thinking About Starting the Engineering Pathway?

To start an engineering research career via FAMU, interested high school students should contact Tarik Dickens, Ph.D. or Rebekah Sweat, Ph.D. at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.

To enroll via PVAMU, get in contact with Richard Wilkins, Ph.D. or Merlyn Pulikkathara, Ph.D. to start your research experience.


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