Cadet research at AF Academy in full swing despite coronavirus

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The top research official at the Air Force Academy said it takes more than a global pandemic to stop summertime research at the school.

Despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on universities across the U.S., cadet researchers are busier than ever, said Col. Chris McClernon, the Academy’s associate dean of research. McClernon oversees all research at the school.

“Our research programs are not slowing,” he said.

The Academy  never entertained cancelling its Cadet Summer Research Program, McClernon said, and “herculean” efforts were made by the faculty and the Academy’s tech-transfer partners to schedule research projects while keeping cadets safe from the coronavirus.

Traditionally, the program supports approximately 200 cadets selected for in-person research experiences nationwide. Efforts resulting from the COVID pandemic increased participation to more than 450 remote cadet research experiences for the summer.

“It really paid off,” he said. “This is an excellent example of our Academy not only surviving, but thriving amid COVID-19. The coronavirus forces us to rethink how we provide research opportunities.”

In March, as the coronavirus spiraled around the U.S., Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria authorized underclassmen to leave the Academy and continue their studies online.

Silveria’s decision to evacuate most cadets from the campus placed a few cadets close to their research hubs, including Cadet 1st Class Kylie Stronko of Woodbridge, Virginia. Stronko worked at the Aerospace Corporation Center, a nonprofit near Chantilly, Virginia, that advises the U.S. government on space-enterprise issues and space-systems engineering. The center is just more than 20 miles from Stronko’s family home in Woodbridge.

Stronko worked with the Aerospace Corporation Center’s head of government relations to monitor progress on next year’s National Defense Authorization Act. She also studied space policies shared by Brazil and the U.S to “develop policy recommendations for U.S. government and military leaders for further collaboration with their Brazilian counterparts.”  

Cadet 1st Class Kathleen Medill enrolled in the Robotics Institute Summer Scholars Program, hosted by Carnegie Mellon University, from her home in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“The goal is to develop a deep-learning [artificial intelligence] model that makes it easier to use a robotic arm,” she said, referring to the AI algorithms used to predict human movement. “I’m excited to apply that knowledge to my capstone project.”

Cadet 1st Class John Byrne of Chesterfield, Missouri, updated the Aerospace Corporation’s Space Policy Primer for industry newcomers.

Byrne began his research in Chesterfield, but will continue his projects at the Academy later this summer.

“The Academy provides a much more in-depth opportunity for cadets interested in specific subjects like space policy,” he said.

The Cadet Summer Research Program also allows cadets to participate in a variety of research internships across Congress, the Defense Department, the State Department, the U.N., NATO, and other organizations.

McClernon, an Academy graduate, said the research opportunities the school provides cadets are a critical component of officer development.

“This is a formative transition from when I was a cadet 20 year ago and research was secondary or extracurricular,” he said. “Now, every cadet has the opportunity to participate in research during their 4-year program. This aspect of the Academy's officer development curriculum trains our future leaders for the complex, ill-defined problems they will face when they lead our country.”

Byrne, Medill and Stronko expect to begin their senior year in September.

Cadet 1st Class John Byrne works on his academic research project at his family home in Chesterfield, Missouri. The U.S. Air Force Academy cadet will return to the school in September to begin his senior year. (Courtesy photo)