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Electrical Engineering Standout Earns Prestigious Scholarship

April 6, 2018
Man examines research drone in lab
David Mohler inspects an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used for research in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Unlike some college students, David Mohler, from Evanston, knows exactly what he will be doing when he graduates from the University of Wyoming.

Mohler, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at UW, recently was accepted into the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship for Service Program.

The scholarship allows the Department of Defense (DOD) to recruit and retain the next generation of science and technology leaders. Recipients work as summer interns during the academic degree program and subsequently are employed at a DOD organization following graduation.

SMART funds the total cost of full-time tuition at UW and provides a yearly stipend. Mohler expects to graduate in spring 2019.

“Once I have completed my degree, I will transfer out of the SMART program into full-time employment through the Department of the Navy as a civilian scientist,” Mohler says. “I am required to fulfill a one-to-one commitment in terms of time. For every year of school that was funded by SMART, I have an obligation to stay with the facility that has sponsored me. In my case, it means that I am committed to a two-year service period after I complete my master’s degree.”

The program was established by the DOD to support undergraduate and graduate students pursuing technical degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Mohler started down the path two years ago, when UW engineering alumnus and College of Engineering and Applied Science Hall of Fame member Tom Lockhart visited campus. He was the director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and, during his visit, he and chief scientist Tim Bunning met with Mohler and other students. They talked with them about what it was like to work in research for the government in the aerospace and defense sector.

Based on mutual interest, Lockhart offered Mohler an internship opportunity in Dayton, Ohio, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. During the internship, he interacted with the director and the chief scientist, both of whom encouraged him to pursue a graduate degree and told him he would be an excellent candidate for the SMART scholarship. They wrote letters of recommendation, along with his UW adviser Cameron Wright, who served in the Air Force.

“The scholarship works in such a way that they pay for my graduate degree without any interruption to a standard academic year,” Mohler says. “In the fall and spring semesters, I attend classes and perform research like normal. In the summers between academic years, I am required to serve an internship with the facility at which I will work following graduation. The program is easy to manage: There is minimal paperwork and effort during academic periods with a few occasional reports. Essentially, I am paid a salary while being a student, which is hard to beat.”

The award has a prestigious nature. In 2017, only 343 scholarships were given, and the award rate for reviewed applications was just 14 percent, according to statistics from the National Defense Education Program.

“The SMART scholarship award is very selective, but I suspect David’s combination of impressive technical expertise, with superb communication skills, is probably what put him over the top,” Wright says. “I predict that this is just the first step in a highly successful career for David. His selection is a very positive reflection upon both the college and the department in highlighting the strong mentorship component to our degree programs. We do more than just teach. We guide, we motivate, and we challenge our students to reach for their maximum potential.”

As part of the selection process for the scholarship, candidates are interviewed by some of their prospective matches based on work and research interests.

“I interviewed both with the Missile Defense Agency in Huntsville, Ala., as well as with the Naval Air Warfare Center at Point Mugu, Calif.,” Mohler says. “Of those two places, I was offered the position at Point Mugu. I was lucky enough to be offered the position that I preferred.”

That means Mohler, who has several family members who have attended UW, will soon leave the high plains for the West Coast. He will likely always remember his experience at UW fondly.

“As a Wyoming native, I have always had a certain pride for the state and university. Beyond that, my family has a history at the university,” he says. “Between my family ties and the outreach the university does with Wyoming high schools, I knew that it was a top-notch school for engineering at a value that is hard to beat, especially considering the scholarship opportunities I was afforded.”

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