Undergraduate summer research program bolsters energetic materials workforce through network building and diversity

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Energetic materials — explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics — are essential to national security strategy, but in recent years, the enterprise has struggled with workforce attrition and a lack of replacement hiring. The Advancing Army Modernization Priorities – Undergraduate Program (AAMP-UP), a collaboration between the Purdue Energetics Research Center (PERC) and DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory (ARL), aims to bolster the workforce by creating a network of students from a variety of backgrounds who are excited about energetic materials research.

AAMP-UP is an 11-week undergraduate summer research program that provides an immersive, experiential environment for undergraduates to collaborate with energetic materials experts on projects that range from material synthesis to machine learning to additive manufacturing. During those 11 weeks, undergraduates work in the lab with graduate students, faculty and staff while completing a variety of professional development activities, including seminars, mock interviews and a research symposium. 

Tracy Sheppard, chief of the weapons science division at DEVCOM ARL, leads the laboratory’s energetic materials research initiatives and recently presented on Army initiatives and priorities at the 2023 Purdue Energetic Materials Summit (PEMS’23). With more than 35 years of experience in research and development of military systems, he is familiar with the challenges of finding qualified candidates. He said lower pay than private industry, a lack of knowledge about the field and difficulties finding job candidates with both the required technical skills and the desire to serve are barriers to recruiting new talent. 

“Once we find the right people, we typically don’t have a problem retaining them,” Sheppard said. “But finding individuals who are both passionate and knowledgeable enough about energetic materials to dive right into the work is a challenge.”

AAMP-UP intends to fill this experience gap. The program provides students with hands-on research experience while directly contributing to a national security initiative and introduces them to the array of career options across the field. Since the program’s inception in May 2021, 103 students from 25 U.S. universities have participated.

Stephen Beaudoin, PERC director and professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University, said that students often aren’t exposed to energetic materials in their coursework, so they don’t consider this area as a viable career path.

“The challenge for the [energetic materials] workforce is people don’t realize the opportunities. They don’t realize how rewarding and intellectually stimulating the work is, and, therefore, they don’t see work in this space as an exciting career option,” Beaudoin said. “When we can provide that excitement, we can help prepare people to enter the workforce fully understanding what the challenges are, what the fundamental science and engineering involves and how to be successful.” 

However, AAMP-UP leadership isn’t only interested in producing competent, ambitious scientists and engineers. What makes AAMP-UP unique is its mission to diversify the energetics workforce and build a network of emerging talent. 

“Our goal is to create a solid foundation of belonging to the energetic materials community that we can then build on in the future,” said Purdue’s Gabriella Torres, who manages the AAMP-UP program and works directly with all students. “Throughout the summer, we reinforce the idea of networking and connections and building relationships with different people and organizations. So we’re contributing to the overall workforce by creating all of these first links between people passionate about energetic materials.”

Torres has also been intentional about diversifying the program through an inclusive national recruitment process. For example, representatives from AAMP-UP attend the Society of Women Engineers and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers national conferences and reach out to various clubs and organizations on campus, including the Pathways Scholar Program, National Society of Black Engineers and the LGBTQ Center. Additionally, because of the interdisciplinary nature of energetic materials research, the program accepts students from a variety of majors, including mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, computer and electrical engineering, materials engineering, nuclear engineering and biochemistry.

So far, AAMP-UP has produced several success stories, with alumni of the program winning significant undergraduate fellowships, accepting internships within the departments of Defense and Energy, moving on to graduate degrees or careers at national labs and some even continuing to work with PERC-affiliated professors. Sheppard said DEVCOM ARL is pleased with AAMP-UP’s contributions and that PERC is a significant source of new talent for the laboratory.

“AAMP-UP has been a great program for the ARL,” Sheppard said. “We can reach out to PERC if we’re in need of any new hires in the energetics space, and we know that they’ll be qualified and ready to contribute to our mission.”

AAMP-UP is a component of the Advancing Army Modernization Priorities – Energetic Materials Cooperative Agreement between PERC and DEVCOM ARL. The agreement’s research agenda targets every aspect of the U.S. energetic materials enterprise — from synthesizing molecules all the way to manufacturing munitions. 

About Purdue University

Purdue University is a public research institution with excellence at scale. Ranked among top 10 public universities and with two colleges in the top 4 in the United States, Purdue discovers and disseminates knowledge with a quality and at a scale second to none. More than 105,000 students study at Purdue across modalities and locations, with 50,000 in person on the West Lafayette campus. Committed to affordability and accessibility, Purdue’s main campus has frozen tuition 12 years in a row. See how Purdue never stops in the persistent pursuit of the next giant leap, including its first comprehensive urban campus in Indianapolis, the new Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business, and Purdue Computes, at https://www.purdue.edu/president/strategic-initiatives.

Writer/Media contact: Lindsey Macdonald, macdonl@purdue.edu

Sources: Tracy Sheppard, DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory

Stephen Beaudoin, sbeaudoi@purdue.edu

Gabriella Torres, gmtorres@purdue.edu

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