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NGA Extends Unique Summer Research Opportunity to HBCU Faculty

NGA Extends Unique Summer Research Opportunity to HBCU Faculty

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is accepting applications through March 31 for a 10-week paid summer research fellowship available exclusively to faculty from historically black colleges and universities.

The IC HBCU Faculty Fellowship at NGA was the first program within the intelligence community to afford HBCUs collaboration opportunities to tackle national security challenges directly with government scientists.. NGA created the fellowship in 2022 to support the White House initiative on advancing educational equity, excellence and economic opportunity through historically black colleges and universities.

Both President Biden and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines have repeatedly emphasized the prioritization of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility efforts within the federal government and the IC. 

NGA established the fellowship by leveraging the agency’s visiting scientist program, which is managed through a partnership with the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. NGA leaders hope the fellowship will serve as a model for similar efforts across the community. 

The unique program enables a strategic relationship between NGA and HBCUs from across the United States. The initiative will raise NGA mission awareness among these colleges and universities and advance recruitment efforts for NGA and the IC overall, specifically with science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM — students, while also advancing the agency’s DEIA efforts. According to the White House, HBCUs produce nearly 20% of all black college graduates and 25% of black graduates who earn degrees in the STEM disciplines.

Last year’s pilot program attracted an inaugural cohort of five fellows, who conducted research involving computer vision, predictive analysis and other topics integral to the agency’s mission to provide geospatial intelligence to the National and Allied Systems for Geospatial Intelligence. 

“The intellectual contribution and novelty that [the participants] bring is so necessary to the tough research questions we are facing at NGA,” said John Chavis, Ph.D., one of the program mentors, during a virtual information session held in late February for faculty members interested in applying for the Summer 2023 fellowship. 

While NGA saw obvious benefits of establishing the program, so did the faculty who participated in the inaugural cohort. They shared their personal experiences during the virtual session and highly recommended that others apply for the upcoming cohort.

“I can say that this was a very productive research collaboration,” said Sambit Bhattacharya, Ph.D., of Fayetteville State University, who worked on an artificial intelligence problem set during his fellowship. “It’s sometimes hard to set up a productive collaboration, especially when coming from a primarily teaching institute.”

All of the faculty fellows praised the program during the session for opening new avenues of research to them and helping them bridge the gap from theory to real-world applications.

“I was hesitant to apply at first because all of my work had been theoretical,” said Kimberly S. Weems, Ph.D., of North Carolina Central University, who conducted research on count data during her fellowship. “It has enabled me to bring real-world examples back to my students.” Amita Davarpanah, Ph.D., of Spelman College agreed. She conducted research in the areas of semantic and geospatial modeling during her fellowship. “I engaged with a very important project dealing with infrastructure,” said Davarpanah. “I learned more about semantic modeling, and I have applied what I’ve learned in my classroom.”

Jesmin Khan, Ph.D., of Tuskegee University focused her research on computer learning/computer vision. “It gave me the opportunity to learn things I could not have learned on my own,” she said. “It has leveled up my critical thinking, and it brought great improvement in my coding ability.”

Khan and fellow cohort participant Aaron Lee Adams, Ph.D., said they would have liked to have longer than the summer to work on their projects. “Ten weeks is not a very long time to do something, but we [she and her mentor] honed the project to what we could get started in that time,” said Khan. Like most of the fellows, she still maintains contact with her NGA mentor.

Adams, a mechanical and civil engineering associate professor at Alabama A&M University, said his only wish was for more time because he was learning about geospatial intelligence for the first time. “It [the fellowship] taught me about something I had no clue about before, and I got to see how my area of expertise was connected,” he said. “It increased my coding skills and ability to think outside the box to apply engineering to situations where I would never have thought it applied.”

All five participants of the inaugural cohort said the fellowship gave them knowledge to take back to their universities and students. Several said their universities are creating new classes, senior projects and curricula as a result. They also said many of their students are now interested in internship and employment opportunities at NGA.

The fellowship is open to current faculty members of historically black colleges and universities. U.S. citizenship is required. Security clearance is not required, although applicants with clearance will be eligible for a broader range of research. 

Fellows receive a $35,000 stipend plus consideration of travel expenses for the 10-week engagement. Those with security clearances will be assigned to NGA’s Springfield, VA, or St. Louis, MO, location. Those without clearance will either be assigned to the St. Louis location, or will perform research at their home institution under the guidance of an NGA mentor.

Application details are available on Zintellect, and proposals will be accepted through March 31. Additional ways academia can connect with NGA are available under Work With Us. 

Article written by NGA Research Communications