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DOD Fellowship Helps Grad Student Advance Machine Learning Research

June 9, 2022
Applied Mathematics Ph.D. student Sarah Downs
Applied Mathematics Ph.D. student Sarah Downs' researches machine learning and optimization.

Ph.D. student Sarah Downs was awarded the prestigious Department of Defense (DOD) Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) scholarship.

The Department of Defense is committed to developing a highly skilled STEM workforce and is the largest employer of federal scientists and engineers, with nearly 150,000 civilian STEM employees working across the DOD.

For more than a decade, SMART scholarships have supported undergraduate, master's and doctoral students who are pursuing a degree in one of the 21 STEM disciplines.

“Receiving this fellowship gives me the opportunity to finish my degree and pursue my research interest in machine learning,” Downs said. “It also allows me to do work that ultimately benefits our country.”

Downs, who is from Folsom, graduated from UC Merced in May 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics. Now, as a doctoral student in the Applied Mathematics Graduate Group, her research focuses on modeling the fluid flow of pulsing corals and implementing machine learning and optimization techniques.

“Sarah has been an excellent student to work with so far in her graduate career. She has shown immense independence in her work,” said her co-adviser Professor Shilpa Khatri. “I am excited to be a member of the team advising her on her project combining the development of data science and machine learning methods with numerical methods for partial differential equations to study an interesting marine science problem — studying the fluid flow and resulting mixing produced by pulsing soft corals.”

This award provides students with full tuition, mentorship, summer internships, a stipend and guaranteed full-time employment with the DOD after graduation. SMART scholars work directly with an experienced mentor, gaining valuable technical skills at one of over 200 innovative laboratories across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Department of Defense.

“This will give me meaningful connections and experiences in my field immediately upon beginning internships and will prepare me to enter the workforce upon graduating,” Downs said.

As an undergrad, she participated in several research programs on campus and ventured out in internships at Intel and UC Irvine.

Professor Roummel Marcia

After graduation, she will work as a machine learning researcher for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield, VA.

In addition to her research, Downs has served as treasurer for the Graduate Student Association during the 2021-2022 academic year, and as the adviser to the Eta Sigma chapter of Phi Mu Fraternity — located at UC Merced — since November 2020.

“Sarah is self-motivated and willing to reach out and take initiative. As an undergrad, she participated in several research programs on campus and ventured out in internships at Intel and UC Irvine,” said Downs’ co-adviser Professor Roummel Marcia. “She served as an intern at the Autonomy Technology Research Summer Program at Wright State University, which was instrumental in her obtaining the SMART fellowship to help prepare her for a career in data science.

“I am very proud of her, and I hope other graduate students will follow her example.”