Engineering on the Frontlines

Unique PhD program bridges academic and military worlds

Two U.S. Army majors made Purdue their home base as they completed PhD studies in civil engineering. Victor Nakano and Reid Vander Schaaf —who were both promoted to lieutenant colonel in 2008—each graduated in May 2008 through a program that equips Army officers to meet military needs.

The Uniformed Army Scientist and Engineer (UAS&E) PhD program educates core Army officers who develop technology solutions to problems facing military commanders. The program seeks to bridge the gap between Army and academic labs, preparing graduates who can advise commanders on science and technology issues.

“I truly felt that combining my doctoral research and operational/acquisition experience would greatly benefit the Army by assisting scientists and engineers in helping to shape and focus their research efforts,” Nakano says. His research at Purdue evolved into a decision-making process for evaluating the designs of buildings, providing protection against chemical and biological threats.

As he connected with students as a mentor and peer, Nakano infused Army culture into campus life. “I intended to convey the strong set of skills I had gained as an Army officer—skills of discipline, taking the initiative and being proactive, organization, responsibility, and communication and presentation skills,” he says. Upon graduation, Nakano served as the military assistant to the commanding general of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. Following this post, he was assigned as a uniformed Army scientist and engineer at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center.

For Vander Schaaf, the UAS&E program opened doors to a potential career in academia. He previously taught in the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the United States Military Academy, West Point. “I enjoy teaching, and obtaining a doctorate made it much more likely that I’d be able to pursue this career after retiring from the military,” he says.

Vander Schaaf discovered that his time away from the Army didn’t limit his opportunities. He currently conducts research in effective organizational decision-making at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center. This summer, he will become a product manager for a missile program.

According to Nakano, both funding and competing demands for Army personnel to serve in higher-priority positions have left the UAS&E program on hold. Yet the benefits of Purdue’s involvement have been striking. Dulcy Abraham, professor of civil engineering, considers the program an excellent avenue to “interact with outstanding Army officers in research and learning opportunities at Purdue while engaging scientists and researchers from Army labs in these endeavors.”

Abraham served as an advisor to both men and commends their commitment to excellence, disciplined and timely delivery of research products, and passion for mentoring peers. As she emphasizes, “This has a strong impact on enriching the education experience of other students in our graduate programs.”

-Matt Schnepf