Mechanical engineering undergraduate lands Navy internship with alumni support

University of Delaware junior Abubakarr Bah’s mother nurtured his interest in math and science by enrolling him at science summer camps as a child, like those available at the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland.

“My mom is one of those moms who researches stuff online. When I was little, she said, ‘You like math? Well, there is this summer program where you can improve on your math and learn what engineers are doing,’ ” said Bah.

It was in these camps that Bah learned about solar technology to convert energy from the sun into electricity and about robotics technologies like unmanned helicopters called quadcopters, among other things. He met other kids that shared similar interests, too. That early exposure stimulated his interest in engineering and led him to be open to new experiences.

So, when he received an email from UD’s Resources to Inspire Successful Engineers (RISE) Program within his first few weeks as a freshman mechanical engineering major, Bah quickly decided to attend an orientation meeting. There he met other engineering students from historically underrepresented backgrounds and learned about networking and professional development opportunities.

“It was great to see other African American engineers in RISE. Even if they are studying electrical engineering or chemical engineering, we might have something in common,” said Bah, who also is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers.

During one meeting, Bah learned about summer research opportunities with the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) from UD chemical engineering and RISE alumnus Jaime Santiago. After the meeting, he talked with Santiago, a civilian materials scientist for the Navy Surface Warfare Center’s Carderock Division in Bethesda, Maryland, about how to apply.

“Abubakarr definitely stood out right away. His great attitude and constant professionalism set him apart,” said Santiago. “We stayed in touch for several months and he ended up applying for an internship for the summer 2019. He was one of six students selected from UD.”

Bah was placed with a NAVSEA ceramics group in Bethesda, where he worked on testing materials for high-temperature applications. The idea was to create materials that would oxidize under high heat and form a protective glass layer to reinforce the thermal barrier for materials traveling at hypersonic speeds.

“It was exciting because it’s hard to get internships as a freshman,” said Bah. “I got to see the entire process: the hypothesis, the research, the testing and analyzing the material in the lab and then how it all comes together as the engineers present their research results or pitch their ideas for continued funding to expand on the work.”

Teamwork, Bah said, is an important part of the process when tackling real world problems. “If you don’t know something, there are other people on your team to help figure it out,” Bah said.

Bah continued working virtually with NAVSEA’s Philadelphia division in the summer of 2020. Working with the advice of a mentor, he and other interns spent the summer analyzing the cost-value ratio of sensors that can be placed on naval vessels for uses such as analyzing weather. He learned about the investments the Navy makes in its employees, including placing and training hires in new fields and helping them gain new skills or degrees. He said having an internship located outside of Delaware broadened his perspective on what is available after graduation. He hopes to return to NAVSEA again this summer to see what else the Navy has to offer.

Paying it forward

Santiago, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at UD in 2012, credits his RISE Program scholarship with opening the door for him to attend UD — a top 10 school for chemical engineering — an opportunity he said otherwise might have remained closed to him financially. That scholarship, coupled with continuous guidance from Marianne Johnson, academic program manager for student development and support and the RISE Program, played a significant role in his academic and professional success.

Marianne Johnson speaks at the 2017 RISE Program banquet.

Other influences on Santiago’s career came from connections he made through his internship with UD’s Center for Composite Materials (CCM), where he met people like CCM director Jack Gillespie, Joseph Deitzel, Roger Crane and the late chemical engineer Richard Wool.

“Marianne was both an authority figure and second-mom to help keep me on track throughout school,” said Santiago. “[CCM provided] an amazing opportunity to gain work experience right on campus, while learning how to network. I met most of the people at my current job through CCM.”

Today, in addition to designing, repairing and upgrading materials for the Navy’s submarine and surface vessels, Santiago is part of the Navy’s recruitment team at Carderock. It is another outcome he attributes to lessons learned in the RISE Program about giving back.

So, what advice does Santiago have for current Blue Hens? For starters, he suggests striving for multiple internships in order to gain a variety of experience.

“View the internship as a professional development opportunity, an experience that can help you to decide what you want to do next,” said Santiago. “For engineering students, I’d suggest the major three — an academic, industry and government experience so that you can determine what kind of career path you might want.”

His other piece of advice: It’s all about attitude.

“Blue Hens have a positive attitude — that’s my experience at a professional level,” Santiago said. “Keeping that positive attitude really helps with developing relationships, which of course, leads to networking. And networking, to me, is what leads to jobs, even more so than anything else.”

About the RISE Program

Since 1971, the RISE (Resources to Inspire Successful Engineers) Program has provided a community within a community for undergraduate students who are traditionally underrepresented and others in the College of Engineering. RISE students have access to personal academic counseling, as well as workshops and discussions on topics ranging from academic to industry to current events. Many students gain leadership experience as members of the RISE Student Advisory Council and all participants have the opportunity to network with industry representatives, many of whom are RISE Program alums. RISE also facilitates student connections to other campus units that can help support their current and future goals, including the Career Center, Undergraduate Research Program, Student Financial Services and more.

Open to any COE undergraduate, RISE currently boasts a membership of 120 individuals, approximately 8% of whom are not underrepresented in engineering fields. The RISE Program is supported in part through funding from the nationally recognized Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a program of the National Science Foundation.

Article by Karen B. Roberts | Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of the U.S. Navy | February 02, 2021