DHS S&T Awardees Help Underserved Communities, and the Nation, Tackle Tough Challenges

When it comes to fostering strong, resilient localities, many underserved communities across the United States face hurdles that can be a challenge to overcome on their own. Some may lack access to secure, reliable broadband, which can affect access to education, employment, and social connection. Some may be saddled with aging physical infrastructure, while others may disproportionately bear the brunt of weather-related disasters or other catastrophic events, worsening inequities already present in today’s society. The Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), through its Scientific Leadership Award (SLA) Program, is working to tackle these (and other) challenges head on in order to reduce the risk of them further compounding over time. 

The SLA Program leverages the promise of education to provide exclusive funding opportunities for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to develop and mature robust homeland security research initiatives that have a force multiplying impact. Doing so not only offers students and faculty an incentive to pursue rewarding careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, but to use these callings to apply science and technology solutions to some of the most pressing local and national needs.

“The SLA grants are key to cultivating scientific leadership in areas of study critical to homeland security,” said Rebecca Medina, Director of S&T’s Office of University Programs. “These institutions can deliver exceptional results, bring unique perspectives, and attract talented individuals to the STEM field, which ultimately make our country safer and more secure.”

Since its inception in 2007, the SLA Program has awarded grants totaling more than $40 million to academic institutions with the Department of Education’s MSI designation, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal colleges and universities. Using cutting-edge research and advanced techniques, these MSI students and their faculty continue to support and promote the homeland security enterprise, cultivating relationships and building research and development networks that span private industry, academia, federal and local government, and the DHS Centers of Excellence (COE).

Working together, SLA projects have focused on a wide range of topics that include engineering secure and resilient network infrastructure, exploring innovative social media analytics to improve disaster management, fostering cybersecurity education and research for infrastructure resilience, analyzing the impacts of climate change, and tackling challenges in artificial intelligence and integration of unmanned vehicles.

In July 2023, the SLA Program awarded its latest grants totaling nearly $9 million to eight MSIs for new efforts related to the Arctic, border security, transforming forensic chemistry education and research, cyber engineering, and cultivating the next generation STEM workforce. Each award recipient will be partnered with S&T-supported COEs to develop homeland security course content and review current research pertaining to complex DHS challenges. 

UDC President Ronald Mason, Jr. and SLA students visit the State Department. Photo credit: UDC.

“Each of our SLA recipient institutions will have the opportunity to foster scientific excellence and innovation in support of our nation’s security, enhance the research capacity at the schools they are part of, as well as bring new ideas to work on with the COE mentors,” said Medina. “We can’t wait to work with them all and watch them accomplish many great things.”

As S&T honors the newest slate of SLA awardees, it is also important to celebrate MSIs whose impact is already great. Like Dr. Angelyn Spaulding Flowers of the University of the District of Columbia, who received an April 2021 SLA grant to conduct the Emergency Services Sector of Critical Infrastructure project.

Dr. Flowers’ project aimed to develop and implement research that analyzes the impacts of climate change, identifies emergency services response strategies, and develops a model to calibrate responses to catastrophic events. “This award has been of tremendous benefit as it has allowed us to substantially contribute to gaps in scholarship and support a national culture of preparedness,” said Dr. Flowers.

Dr. Murphy (right) and two student researchers. Photo credit: Jackson State University.

Another outstanding SLA grant recipient is Dr. Jessica Murphy with the Coastal Resilience Center at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, who received an SLA grant in March 2021. Dr. Murphy’s Community Resilience Project: Education and Training Endeavors (CREATE-Next Generation) focuses on assisting the State of Mississippi with creating education, training, and preparedness for weather-related disasters, with a specific emphasis on the needs of underserved communities.

“Because of this grant, we’ve made pivotal strides in preparing underserved communities in Mississippi for weather-related disasters,” said Dr. Murphy. “We are proud to serve as a model for other Historically Black Colleges and Universities in promoting community resilience and developing the next generation of emergency management professionals.”

The SLA grant provides opportunities for UNC students to engage in academic programs, training, and research to expand their knowledge of emergency management and homeland security. Dr. Murphy and her research team host emergency weather preparedness town hall meetings in the Jackson region, often in collaboration with the National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, and local news/weather outlets.    

The SLA research team at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is tackling challenges in artificial intelligence and integration of unmanned vehicles (UV) into homeland security and emergency response missions with their Ultra-large Scale Miniature UV Based AI Platform for Border Protection project. Dr. Emmett Tomai and Dr. Qi Lu are leading undergraduate and graduate researchers through the development of a distributed system of air and ground UVs that work autonomously to perform information and resource gathering tasks, such as search-and-rescue and patrol. Students have completed interdisciplinary master’s theses and undergraduate projects in drone control systems, machine learning, and computer vision. The project started in March 2021 and will run until September 2024.

Dr. Qi Lu with team students in the robotics lab. Photo credit: University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

“This grant has enabled us to get more students in the Rio Grande Valley excited about computer science, research, and real-world applications,” said Dr. Emmett Tomai. “This summer, we have an undergraduate research cohort working with the SLA team, an undergraduate student workshop learning to use machine learning in the cloud, and we have been hosting tours for middle school coding classes.”

“By raising students’ awareness and providing accessible opportunities, we are opening up career paths and addressing the computing workforce shortage by expanding the pool,” said Dr. Qi Lu. “Our historically underserved community is full of young talent and will only continue to grow.”

S&T applauds these (and all of) the SLA grant recipients for their efforts to meet challenges with creativity and innovation. The grants are an investment not only in the next generation of homeland security experts, but also in the communities that will ultimately benefit from their ingenuity. Without their focus on the critical issues facing society now, we risk them evolving into the threats of tomorrow. For the nation to be resilient, every citizen and community must be allowed the opportunity to thrive.

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