DECEMBER 15, 2022 — The UTSA-led Consortium on Nuclear Security Technologies (CONNECT) has received a five-year, $5 million renewal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The funds will go toward UTSA’s efforts to educate and train the next generation of scientists and engineers, to provide innovative solutions to challenges related to nuclear security and to bolster the nation’s pipeline of underrepresented students prepared for research careers.
CONNECT provided funds for 45 students at three institutions during its first phase, which started three years ago. Participants included 23 undergraduate students and 22 graduate students from UTSA, St. Mary’s University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The program had a retention rate of 86% and over half of its participants identified as underrepresented minorities.
“CONNECT provides transdisciplinary, transformative and collaborative learning opportunities where students make a national impact through groundbreaking research while gaining marketable skills and network connections to help them thrive in their future careers,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, UTSA provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “We are grateful for the generous support from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue this valuable program.”
CONNECT is funded by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (MSIPP), a program that was created for the NNSA to raise awareness about the career opportunities available for minority students who are interested in STEM, particularly physics, computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.
“The CONNECT program has facilitated the development of a student pipeline to our partners at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. It’s also kickstarted several sustainable research areas with engagement from both UTSA faculty and the national lab scientists,” said Elizabeth Sooby, principal investigator of the CONNECT grant and assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Physics and Astronomy.
In this renewal phase, CONNECT will offer a course on nuclear policy to help students gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the policy-making process at the federal level as it relates to national nuclear security. The course will include a project where students will simulate a mock conference as the International Atomic Energy Agency where they will roleplay as delegates to better understand how policy is created.
“The course enables students to understand the politics and public policy-making surrounding nuclear security and nonproliferation,” said Matthias Hofferberth, associate professor in the UTSA Department of Political Science and Geography. “This responds to the need for transdisciplinary education, where students need to not only understand the scientific basics but also the political dynamics surrounding complex issues.”
Through the CONNECT program, Miltos Alamaniotis, assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, leads a team that is advancing nuclear security by developing the next generation of radiation detection systems. His team is training a cohort of engineers with a unique expertise in artificial intelligence, radiation engineering and nuclear security. Alamanaiotis’ research focuses on the development of artificial intelligence algorithms that will perform real-time detection and identification of activities associated with nuclear materials.
“With the current global situation and the potential threat of the use of nuclear weapons, the need for enhancing nuclear security has become apparent,” Alamaniotis said. “Through CONNECT, we will contribute to this global endeavor by developing the next generation radiation detectors that utilize artificial intelligence in order to monitor the secure movement and storage of nuclear materials."
Every summer, the CONNECT program hosts a summer undergraduate research experience. Over the years, this experience has included a total of 25 undergraduates, several of whom have continued their research and have found employment in U.S. Department of Energy laboratories across the country with some of the nation’s most preeminent nuclear science researchers.
Geronimo Robles, a UTSA physics Ph.D. candidate, is one of the many students who has benefited from the CONNECT program. Robles researches nuclear fuels through fabrication, performance testing and characterization to improve safety and explore more economical options.
“CONNECT has helped me achieve a great number of accomplishments that I either didn’t know were options or that I thought were outside my reach,” Robles said. “Through CONNECT, I have been able to travel for conferences around the country and secure internships at both Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee and Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico.”
UTSA CONNECT team members include Sooby, Alamaniotis, Hofferberth, Kelly Nash, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Amanda Fernandez, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, Harry Millwater, the Samuel G. Dawson Endowed Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Arturo Montoya, associate professor in the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and Construction Management, and Christopher Reddick, professor in the Department of Public Administration.
The Consortium was established in 2019 by a cross-disciplinary team of researchers led by faculty members in the College of Sciences and the Margie and Bill Klesse College of Engineering and Integrated Design. At the time, the team was awarded nearly $3 million in grant funding by the National Nuclear Security Administration to allow students studying physics, computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering to collaborate on interdisciplinary research and network with experts in the nuclear security field.
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