Junior engineering student earns Department of Defense Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation Scholarship

Almost from the first moment Hannah Epstein set foot on the Picatinny Arsenal military base not far from her northern New Jersey home, she knew what she wanted to do when she grew up: Become an engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense.

So when she heard about the Department of Defense Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (DoD SMART) Scholarship as a teenager, she knew she had to go for it once she got to college.

Epstein, now a junior in the University of Delaware’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, recently achieved her goal of being awarded the DoD SMART Scholarship, which provides students with full tuition for up to five years as well as mentorships, summer internships, a stipend and full-time employment with the DoD after graduation.

“Hannah’s selection as a DoD SMART Scholar attests to the breadth and quality of education students receive in the College of Engineering,” said Chuck Shermeyer, assistant dean for undergraduate services in the College of Engineering. “Her drive to represent the college through this prestigious scholarship is admirable and will only serve to show those she works with that we are educating the next generation of amazing engineers.”

But it wasn’t as easy as she hoped. The first time she applied as a freshman in college, she didn’t get it, she said. She was ready to give up, but her mom convinced her to work harder and try again. When she did, not only did she earn the prestigious award, but she also secured a placement at Picatinny, where she had been dreaming of working since she was 16 years old.

“Picatinny, through robotics, has been a part of my life since high school,” Epstein said. “It’s crazy that now I get to work for them and do exactly what I said I was going to do since I was 16 years old.”

When she enrolled at UD, she was on the fence about pursuing chemical or mechanical engineering, but ultimately chose the latter. She said she fell in love with mechanical work during her time on the robotics team in high school when she had to fill in for the carpentry subdivision. Now, she’s helping out at UD’s machine shop as a teaching assistant, supporting her love of power tools.

“Hannah has a strong sense of community, always helping peers around her,” said Jenni Buckley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who has worked closely with Epstein. “We are lucky to have her represent the mechanical engineering department.”

In addition to her engineering studies, with a focus on automotive engineering, Epstein also is pursuing minors in entrepreneurship and English.

“Nothing is more valuable than an engineer who can write well,” Epstein said, noting that her love of writing and literature had her toying with the idea of pursuing a career in journalism at one point. English has always been her first love, but she also wanted to do something business-related with her collegiate studies.

Beyond her classes, she’s also the programming director for the Alpha Xi Delta sorority and recruitment chair of Alpha Kappa Psi, a business-focused fraternity. When she’s not busy with classes or extracurriculars, she can be found consuming lots of coffee, spending time in the Morris Library or doing homework in the labs at Spencer.

But her experiences on the robotics team in high school sealed the deal for her future in engineering.

That experience is also what exposed her to the Picatinny Arsenal and what it would be like working as a female engineer for the military. She remembers attending a career fair for women interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at the start of her senior year, right before the COVID pandemic hit, and seeing some of the coolest tech she’d ever seen in her life — guns and bullets and radar technology. After speaking to several of the female professionals, she decided they had “the coolest job on the face of the planet,” and that’s exactly what she wanted to do.

So they told her to look into the DoD SMART Scholarship. The idea stuck.

Her work with the robotics team in high school started out in electrical engineering and then shifted to mechanical engineering, and competitions included fully uniformed high-ranking officers in attendance. She chose UD because of its highly ranked Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and also because her father is an alumnus who helped her fall in love with UDairy at a young age.

“Delaware also had the most of that hands-on engineering aspect, by comparison to a lot of other schools,” she said. “Every semester you get to build a different project. I fell in love with the idea that every semester I could do something hands-on.”

During summer 2022, Epstein got to work for a different military branch through an internship with the U.S. Navy at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division in Virginia. There, she served as a member of the B53 branch, which specializes in the integrated top-side design of Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard ships.

“Basically, anything that goes on top of a warship, we get to work on,” she said. “It’s a lot of design strategy and working with different technologies.”

Hannah Epstein, who chose UD and engineering because of the love of robotics she developed in high school, spent the summer of 2022 at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division in Virginia.

Boarding an assault ship at the Norfolk Naval Station through that internship is probably the coolest thing she’s ever done in her life, she said, but it’s also been a wild experience to hear war stories and soak up the experience of decades-long members of the military as she works alongside them.

“I feel like I’ve grown up a lot this summer in terms of engineering skills, real-world skills and what it’s like to be an engineer for the Department of Defense,” she said while still in Virginia. “It’s been so cool. The whole message down here — and you can truly feel it because everyone works with purpose — is that our job is to protect the war fighter. Our job is to bring people home. It’s emulated so strongly in the work everyone does and in the attitudes of everyone. It gives it such a deeper meaning.”

After she graduates from UD in 2024, Epstein will head to Picatinny Arsenal in Wharton, New Jersey, where she will work for at least two years in the Munitions Engineering and Technology Center.

“When you think of the military, you think of a very rigid structure,” she said. “But actually there’s so much room for creativity and design within that structure. I’m so excited for Picatinny and am excited to hear about those experiences from a completely different branch of the military.”

According to the Department of Defense, the Scholarship-for-Service Program is a combined educational and workforce development opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to gain technical skills in critical STEM fields and support the national security mission of the Department of Defense.

The DoD is the largest employer of federal scientists and engineers in the nation, with nearly 150,000 civilian STEM employees working across the Department. For over a decade, SMART has trained a highly skilled STEM workforce that competes with the evolving trends of industry to support the next generation of science and technology for our nation. For more information on the SMART Program or to learn how students can apply, visit smartscholarship.org. Applications are open annually from August through December.

Article by Maddy Lauria | Photos courtesy of Hannah Epstein and U.S. Department of Defense | Photo illustration by Joy Smoker | August 25, 2022