DHS scholarship program fosters new tech skills

Program encourages science and technology expertise

Since 2003, Homeland Security Department officials have awarded scholarships and fellowships to more than 200 university students to conduct science and technology research and development to help in the nation's counterterrorism efforts.

The long-term strategy of DHS' Scholars and Fellows program is to get more individuals interested in homeland security as a discipline and field of study. In essence, the program is building the next generation of scientists and engineers. And the plan seems to be working.

Officials have recently stopped accepting applications for the 2005-2006 academic year and will announce recipients later this year.

If the program's first two years are any indication, competition will be fierce. In 2003, there were nearly 2,500 applications for 101 slots. In 2004, there were nearly 900 applications and 105 recipients.

"In an age of evolving threats and global competition, any program that encourages people to study science, technology, engineering and math is indispensable," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.

Under the program, undergraduate students receive scholarships and graduate students receive fellowships of varying amounts toward tuition, fees and stipends for one year. Undergraduates can renew their awards for as many as two years, and graduate students can renew for up to three.

"We see this group of scholars as a way of engaging the American entrepreneurial and inventive spirit to help us fight the war on terror through science and technology innovations," said Charles McQueary, undersecretary of DHS' Science and Technology Directorate, in a statement about last year's award winners.

Maureen McCarthy, director of the directorate's Office of Research and Development, which sponsors the program, said DHS officials want to build a base of young people who understand homeland security.

"At the end of the day, I know I have the best brains in the business. But what I really think is different about this fellowship program is I don't just want their brains. I want their hearts," she said. McCarthy helped lead the development of the program.

Students are not required to work for the federal government after completing the program. McCarthy said that is because officials want to attract students who wouldn't usually consider homeland security careers.

The program takes a multidisciplinary approach to homeland security and encourages study in physical, life and social sciences; mathematics; computer science; psychology; selected humanities; and engineering.

Tobin Smith, senior federal relations officer at the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 leading research universities, said the program's philosophy is important because it will produce more well-rounded students than if you have someone, for example, with only an engineering degree.

"They're really focusing on multidisciplinary efforts, such as engineers working with social scientists, because you need to combine the risk and the threat, which a social scientist or economist might be best to figure out with some engineering facts," he said.

Smith said not enough students are pursuing certain areas of science and engineering, which are critical to helping the country in terms of homeland security and national defense. There's a particular need for students to learn foreign languages, he said.

Students follow technology path

Maureen McCarthy, director of the Office of Research and Development in the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate, said college students have a strong interest in the cybersecurity scholarship program.

Their interest goes beyond technical issues related to cybersecurity to encompass perspectives on information exchange, privacy and other issues, such as downloading and sharing music files.

"I've been really pleased at the energy that's been injected in the perspective that I've got in just my conversations with them about how they're exploring areas that we think are really important, but areas that we in the federal government wouldn't even realize are big-deal issues," McCarthy said. "The computer engineers are really taking the area to a new height."

— Dibya Sarkar

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