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News | Aug. 22, 2023

Inspiring the Next Generation of STEM Professionals

By Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Chemical and Biological Technologies Department Defense Threat Reduction Agency

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency's (DTRA) Chemical and Biological Technologies Department in its role as the Joint Science and Technology Office (JSTO) for Chemical and Biological Defense, an integral component of the Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP), sponsors the Joint Science and Technology Institute (JSTI) East and West residential programs, which are fully funded for all students who attend.

“Supporting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities for middle and high school students is an important way DTRA JSTO inspires the next generation of scientists to develop the technologies of tomorrow,” said Acting Director COL Christopher Grice who recently visited JSTI East in Maryland. 

The Agency partners with the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE)—a U.S. Department of Energy asset aimed at training America’s next generation of STEM experts—in offering the programs that pair teachers and students with Department of Defense (DoD) STEM mentors. Every year, JSTI hosts JSTI East in Towson, Md., and JSTI West in Albuquerque, N.M., with aspiring student scientists from across the country. For nearly a decade, the program has inspired young scholars to pursue careers in STEM-focused areas, giving them a competitive edge in winning internships and jobs in their chosen field.

The program aligns with the DoD strategic STEM goals including providing meaningful learning opportunities for students and educators, attracting future STEM workers through multiple pathways, and increasing participation of underrepresented groups in STEM education.
Students and teachers engaged with DoD scientists and other STEM experts through labs, experiments, inquiry-based activities, and design challenges.

At the JSTI summer programs, some high school students stress test miniature bridges built using 3-D printers, while down the hall, another group masters aerodynamics by constructing balsa-wood airplanes. Middle schoolers create a model stream to study water quality and erosion, while their cohorts don white lab coats and goggles to conduct forensic chemistry experiments.

“A 2019 longitudinal survey of participants from 2012-2018 revealed that 89% of respondents said JSTI influenced their educational plans, and 79% said the program influenced their career,” stated Jennifer Tyrell, associate manager of STEM workforce development at ORISE.

A Competitive Edge

Makayla Marquez, a 2019 alumna of JSTI West, currently studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Following her time at JSTI, Marquez interned for a summer in environmental solutions at the Jacobs business consulting company where she was the youngest candidate for that competitive position. 

Katerina Bonilla, another 2019 JSTI West alumna, currently studies biomedical sciences at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Coming into college, Bonilla wasn’t sure what she wanted to study, but while taking a biology class her freshman year, she realized they were conducting the same experiments she had done during her time at JSTI. 

In 2019, JSTI East alumna Laurel Radzyminski of Storrs-Mansfield, Conn., participated as a rising sophomore in the antibiotics research program contributing to a DNA database. As a result, she developed a strong interest in chemistry, her current major at the University of Connecticut. 
She is considering a career in pharmacology or nuclear chemistry. Now, she returns to the summer program to help mentor participating students. 
“They are a lot of fun, but they still get their work done,” she stated.

Fun and Educational Experiences

At JSTI East this year, 43 high school students and 32 middle school students were divided into 10 research groups covering electronic and military packaging, math modeling, flight design and dynamics, design engineering and AI, the science of storytelling, antibiotic discovery, and more. High school students stay for two weeks while middle schoolers attend for one week.

The students focused on a single research topic for the duration of JSTI. Students also participated in a variety of fun, educational experiences including tours of government labs and research facilities and trips to local museums. Students also attended a “speed mentoring” dinner. STEM mentors were stationed at tables while students rotated between tables, peppering them with questions about their journey and their field of study.

In the military packaging group, Abigail Seitz, who attends a technical high school in Wilmington, Ohio, is learning to design secure packaging for the miniature tank she built, considering cost, time, size, and weight. Seitz hopes to work for the FBI in cybersecurity. 

At JSTI West in Albuquerque, the 36 students were divided into six research groups, exploring topics that included making smart polymeric materials, creating an open-source library for programmers to make coding models, and understanding how STEM can be applied to Chemical, Biologic, Radiation, Nuclear, and high-yield Explosives (CBRNE) incidents.

“We’ve been working with the Los Alamos HAZMAT response team, so instead of doing lab work, they are instructing us, in some ways training us, to be HAZMAT responders,” said Texas senior Maximus Roebuck. “They are taking us through their process, their equipment, and their way of thinking for approaching CBRNE incidents.” 

Another group focused on climate change—in particular, how microorganisms can enhance soil quality and crop production. Students soaked sorghum seeds in a bacteria solution comprised of microorganisms. They then placed the seeds in EcoFAB devices, or mini greenhouses, filling a cavity with varying salinity levels. This mimics the real-world issue of saltwater contamination in crop production. 

Mentorship is Key

A critical component to the program is mentorship. Each group is paired with mentors that oversee the experiments and research development. 

Isabel O’Connell, a student from Georgia, worked alongside scientific professionals in the field of study she is most interested in—environmental science and climate change—providing a once-in-a-lifetime experience that she couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. 

Dr. Ricardo Matri-Arbona, Deputy Group Leader at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, said that this dynamic is unique for both students and mentors because everyone leaves with a meaningful experience. “The mentors take almost as much away as the kids,” he said. “Bringing in scientists to interact with kids and show them not only about science but also the multiple career paths that can materialize, makes a big difference. And it allows us mentors the opportunity to give something back.” 

Setting Students Up for Success 

New Mexico State Sen. Leo Jaramillo, who visited the students during their second week at JSTI West, emphasized the impact this program and the work of these students will have to the local community: “When you think that we have two national laboratories in our backyard, this is huge in getting students excited about career opportunities here in New Mexico.” 

Carl Brown, Staff Director of Strategic Communication and Outreach at DTRA’s Research and Development Directorate’s Chemical/Biological Technologies Department, said DTRA JSTO’s funding of the program directly coincides with DoD’s STEM goals.

“These objectives direct us to build a strong foundation for STEM literacy; to increase, diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM; and prepare the next generation STEM workforce,” Brown said. “They support the overarching goal to inspire community engagement in DoD STEM education programs and activities to provide meaningful STEM learning opportunities for students and educators. That’s why we run this program.” 

For more information about JSTI, visit:


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