Third trip's a charm for Academy's new chief scientist

  • Published
  • By Dave Edwards
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Col. Brent Richert knows his way around science as well as he knows his way around the Air Force Academy: like an old pro.

A self-described "physics geek," Colonel Richert is just starting his third stint at the Academy. First he was a cadet, then a professor. Now the Arkansas native is the new chief scientist, putting him in charge of a $55-million research budget, by far the largest among service academies.

"My main goal is to help the faculty guide cadets," Colonel Richert said. "I leverage my contacts and information to get people together and bring those research opportunities here. It's all about the cadets. It benefits the faculty as well."

Solving real-world problems through cutting-edge research isn't something undergraduates do at all universities, so Colonel Richert approaches every faculty research proposal with the same question: What will the cadets gain by doing this?

The job Colonel Richert inherits from his predecessor, Col. Robert Fredell, has become more complex because of a steadily increasing budget and challenging real-world problems. The Academy's 14 research centers and two policy institutes are focused on issues with roots in the sciences, engineering disciplines and national defense, he explained.

"It's been said that research is a contact sport, so you've got to go out and make contacts," Colonel Richert said. "Part of that (budget) is because we have great ties to other institutions. The Air Force Academy has been very aggressive in reaching out for research opportunities to benefit cadets."

Outreach efforts have extended into Colorado Springs and beyond. The Academy's much-publicized solar array is a massive undertaking that forged a partnership between the Academy and Colorado Springs Utilities. The solar array, funded with $18 million from the federal stimulus bill passed in 2009, forms a key component in the green-energy strategy for the base.

Colonel Richert said the Academy has approximately 90 cooperative research and development agreements with industry and other universities for collaborative research and development.

Another arm of the outreach efforts focuses on K-12 education and the nationwide efforts to foster children's interest in math and science. That initiative is called STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

So far in 2010, the Academy has awarded $480,000 in STEM grants. And earlier this summer, 60 high school teachers from around the state attended science boot camps, equipping them with the tools to scatter the seeds of interest in their classrooms. Also, the Academy's first STEM conference, held last year, drew 250 participants.

Colonel Richert said the STEM program is not a means of recruiting for the Academy, as the very nature of the admissions policy ensures a geographical balance. But he sees the overarching concept as critical.

"You've got to catch them early," he said. "Those who are interested, you want to encourage them so they take the classes they need in middle school and high school."
One of the 14 research programs that Colonel Richert will oversee is the Center for Aircraft Structural Life Extension. Its slogan is "saving lives one crack at a time," and the cadets' research can be applied to both military and civilian aviation.

"This is a one-of-a-kind, hands-on opportunity," wrote Lt. Col. Tim Radsick, the research center's director, for the Academy's 2009 Research Report. "Potentially, some of these cadets may become KC-135 pilots and retire from the Air Force before their plane does."

Academy output as a result of all the research done by cadets and faculty is prodigious. It includes licensable intellectual property, scientific discoveries and more than 300 publications issued annually. In addition, the Academy contracts with more than 120 researchers and technicians to supplement its faculty.

This is the atmosphere Colonel Richert rejoins after a hiatus of more than 15 years. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1983, becoming a distinguished graduate of the Academy. In quick succession, he received a master's degree from the University of New Mexico and a doctorate from Texas A&M University.

From 1989 to 1994, he was an associate professor of physics at the Academy. Since then, he has crisscrossed the country, doing stints in Washington, D.C., Alabama, New Mexico, Hawaii and Virginia. Now he's back at his alma mater.

Cadet researchers are sure to reap continued benefits and can be assured that their activities are in the hands of someone who has been around the block a time or two. Or three.