Two Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) professors recently earned the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Program (YIP) Award, a highly competitive early-career award program for academic scientists and engineers that recognizes creative research with potential for a significant scientific breakthrough.
Assistant Professor of Oceanography Dr. Derek Olson and Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Dr. Andy Nieto were among 38 participants selected from 260 applicants for the prestigious research award, which provides funding over a three-year period to further their research for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
"Early career awards are critical for building our new generation of scientific leaders, and even more so in this era of more limited research funding availability," said previous YIP awardee NPS Professor of Oceanography John Colosi, noting also that the selection of two faculty members reflects exceptionally well on NPS.
Not only will this facilitate recruitment of talented young scientists, he said, but the YIP committee specifically looks for institutions with strong mentors to develop young researchers into future national and global leaders.
While both Olson and Nieto are junior professors, they both showed exceptional creativity in their various research.
Olsen’s work is focused on reducing false alarms while using Sound Navigation and Ranging (SONAR). An invaluable tool for all mariners, SONAR works by sending out a signal and measuring the returned signal as it bounces off different surfaces under the water. An underwater image of a seafloor littered with rocks, barrels and the like, however, might look similar to one filled with underwater mines.
His research, entitled “The Structure of Complex Seafloor Environments: Acoustic Remote Sensing and Inference,” is able to discern between these by utilizing ocean acoustics to hone in on specific mapping of objects with SONAR.
“Think of SONAR like the light from a flashlight in a dusty room,” Olsen said. “You shine the light and are able to see dust because the light is bounding back off of the particles. If we understand the way false alarms show up, we can do a better job of rejecting them so we don’t waste our time looking for rocks when we should be looking for mines.”
Moving above the water line, Nieto's research – “Functionally Graded Cold Sprayed Hybrid Coatings for Multi-Material Structural Repair and Wear Protection” – focuses on cold spraying metal for wear resistance.
“Cold spraying” is not necessarily cold, he noted, but uses lesser temperatures than most metallurgy processes use. Nieto likened the process to spray painting your house, only the paint is heated with gas and then sprayed at supersonic speeds to create layers as it impacts metal particles.
"The first half of the project is developing wear resistant coatings for metals, mostly magnesium and aluminum," Nieto said. "Then the second half of the project is going to take that learning of new composite compositions and use the nanomaterials for better adhesion strengths to protect polymeric materials.”
Nieto and Olson were elated to find out they had been selected to receive ONR’s YIP Award.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Nieto said. “It’s just about as prestigious an award as any young faculty could win at any university.”
Olson noted, “It’s really competitive and not like a usual grant. I’m extremely happy and honored to be named a recipient!”
The award will enable Nieto and Olson to procure costly equipment and materials necessary for their research and provide the opportunity to conduct their thesis work on these emerging, relevant technologies.
"For students, it enriches their curriculum," said Nieto. "We're equipping naval officers to be subject matter experts, and when they leave here with new techniques and innovations that are relevant are being used, then I think it motivates them and really enriches their education.”
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Program seeks to identify and support academic scientists and engineers who are in their first or second full-time tenure-track or tenure-track-equivalent academic appointment, who have received their doctorate or equivalent degree in the past seven years, and who show exceptional promise for doing creative research. The objectives of this program are to attract outstanding faculty members of institutions of higher education to the Department of the Navy's Science and Technology (S&T) research program, to support their research, and to encourage their teaching and research careers.