Chemist Creates Program to Support Vets in STEM

Assistant professor of chemistry Michael Marty is developing the Arizona Science, Engineering and Math Scholars – Veterans program to support veteran students who are pursuing STEM degrees and bring their skills to research labs at the UA.
July 2, 2019
Michael Marty
Michael Marty

Military veterans interested in studying STEM fields at the University of Arizona will get a little extra help this fall thanks to a new program that is being developed to support veterans and increase their participation in research.

The new program is an expansion of the highly successful Arizona Science, Engineering and Math Scholars, or ASEMS, program, which provides tutoring, mentoring and specialized coursework for UA students.

“ASEMS has done really well with supporting and engaging students in STEM, so we wanted to take what already exists and is working and adjust it specifically for the veteran population,” said assistant professor of chemistry Michael Marty, who received a National Science Foundation Career grant to support a veteran-specific program dubbed ASEMS-V.

Identifying a Need

In October 2017, James Rohrbough became the first staff scientist in the Marty Lab.

Rohrbough spent nearly 21 years in the U.S. Air Force as a chemist and taught chemistry as an assistant professor at the Air Force Academy. But 18 months into retirement, Rohrbough, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, was bored. When he saw that Michael Marty, an assistant professor of chemistry at the UA, was hiring, Rohrbough picked up the phone.

“I thought, ‘I can actually use my degree back at the university,’” says Rohrbough, who grew up in Tucson and received both his undergraduate degree and his Ph.D. from the UA.

“James told me he’d like to get back into a lab, and with someone of his level of experience, I was happy to have him,” Marty said.

At the same time that he hired Rohrbough, Marty was thinking about what impact he could have on students. He wanted to do something new and unique – something that would make a difference.

“With James joining the lab,” Marty said, “I thought we might have a unique opportunity to work with veterans.”

Marty started to look at veterans and higher education more closely, and he didn’t like what he found. Among veterans, both graduation rates and persistence in STEM were lower than in the overall student population.

Marty reached out to Cody Nicholls, who oversees programs and resources at the Student Vets Center and the UA ROTC, and spoke with Kimberly Sierra-Cajas, director of the ASEMS. Then, he asked Rohrbough about the challenges veterans face in an academic environment.

For many veterans, their time in the service is a gap between high school and college, so they may need to a refresher on foundational courses that an undergraduate fresh out of high school wouldn’t need. Also, a much higher proportion of veterans have spouses, children and other commitments beyond their studies when compared with traditional students.

“James was really the one who pointed out how different training was in the military compared to an academic environment,” Marty said, referring to the primarily in-the-field training of the military versus the classroom learning of a university.

“Veterans are typically older, more mature and have more experience when they start university, so they’re more ready to jump right into research than a traditional 18-year-old undergraduate might be,” Marty said. “We think that’ll help mimic the on-the-job training they get in the military. It’s practical, hands-on learning.”

Finding a Solution

From their discussions, an idea emerged. Alongside colleagues in the ASEMS program and the Vet Center, Marty would help launch an ASEMS program for veterans, to be called ASEMS-V. Through the program, he could support veteran students pursuing STEM degrees and bring their skills to research labs at the UA.

“Marty’s work typifies the science that federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, see as both cutting-edge and fundamental at the same time,” says Kimberly Ogden, interim vice president for research at the UA. “Marty embodies a true scholar that is dedicated to research, education and community engagement.”

Through ASEMS-V, veterans at the UA will receive tutoring, mentoring and professional development. They will take courses such as Success in STEM, Professionalism in STEM and Research Readiness, and ideally, they will shadow researchers in labs as early as their first semester as a student.

“Hopefully, ASEMS-V will persuade veterans who were on the fence about their degree choices to pursue their dreams and complete a degree in a STEM field,” Nicholls said.

“Veterans are particularly well-suited for careers in STEM,” said Rohrbough, who is helping Marty develop the curricula and will likely teach, as well. “The mindset of military service is mission-oriented. We have a goal; We do everything we can to achieve it. And that’s exactly how we do science, too. We focus all of our energy on the steps it takes to get to a goal, so time in the military is really useful.”

Marty’s NSF grant also supports his research, studying biological membranes and developing new techniques to better understand the interactions of proteins, peptides and small molecules within this complex environment. This grant comes on the heels of a $1.8 million National Institutes of Health grant for this research, as well.

"Research challenges, such as those the Marty lab investigates, are often solved by research teams that can draw upon diverse experiences," said NSFprogram officer Robin McCarley, who oversees funding of Marty's CAREER project. “Veterans bring unique personal and professional perspectives to a university setting. By integrating research and education, Marty is improving outcomes for students of all walks of life and for research.”

Marty hopes to have veteran students participating in the ASEMS-V program and shadowing in his lab this fall, he said.

“The most exciting part of science is being on the forefront of discoveries and being in a research lab is the best way to do that,” Marty said.