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UNM partners with Air Force to help STEM students

UNM and the Air Force Research Laboratory are working together to encourage STEM students to pursue internships and plan for careers.

The UNM and AFRL mentoring program, which began in fall 2015, is accepting applications for this semester until January 30th.

Tara Hackel, who helped create the program, said it pairs scientists who work at AFRL with UNM students to support students with an interest in STEM — the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — and to help scientists build their leadership skills.

The program was created by the STEM Collaborative Center and AFRL to build a pathway for students interested in internships at the Air Force labs, Hackel said.

“I’m coming from an engineering background, and being one of the few women in my field and a first year student it was really hard to find mentors that I could relate to that understood what I was going through,” she said.

The mentor-mentee relationship is unique because it offers students a chance to form a relationship with a scientist in their field who isn’t a professor or employer, Hackel said.

Chemical engineering sophomore Denise Cano said she’s wanted to be an engineer since seventh grade.

Cano started the program last fall and said she likes having someone to advise her on resume writing and internship applications.

“My parents never went to college; they barely speak English,” Cano said. “So for me it’s kind of difficult to be able to talk to them about it, because they don’t understand exactly. They’re like ‘Oh, that’s good, mija,’ but they can’t advise me where to apply or where to go.”

She said she was surprised at how well she connected to her mentor despite their age difference and thinks anyone who’s “lost” should apply to the program so they can see what the professional world looks like.

Hackel said the program helps AFRL employees build leadership skills, and she’s heard it can sometimes help them with promotions.

Paul Moran, deputy program manager for AFRL’s gas laser program, said he’s been a mentor in the program since it started with only eight pairs of mentors and mentees. It has since helped him meet UNM students and faculty.

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Moran’s mentee, Patrick Brown, is an astrophysics student, just as Moran was as an undergrad.

“I can commiserate,” Moran said. “When he says he’s having a rough time in modern physics, I took that five years ago so I know how that goes and I can say, ‘Oh, maybe you want to line your classes up this way or that way.’”

Brown said the program has helped him plan his course load better and understand the real world application of what he’s learning, making his experience in the classroom less stressful.

Moran said he’s trying to get Brown into the labs on the base to do some research this semester and hopes the program helps more local students work in the labs, whether through their mentors or the summer scholars program.

“It’s only a matter of time before we see people working with me at AFRL who say, ‘Oh yeah, I found out about this place from this program,’” Moran said.

Hackel said the program includes a tour of the labs on the base.

“It was fun to actually see the labs that physicists work in instead of the science fiction shows I watch,” Brown said. “These were a lot more in depth and it was just a really cool experience.”

Every semester there are more students who apply to the program than mentors, Hackel said. To help solve this problem she’s begun allowing upperclassmen who have completed at least one semester of the program to become mentors.

“When you make it to junior or senior year, it’s time to start reaching back because so few freshman or sophomores make it that far,” Hackel said.

Sophomore mechanical engineering student Mark Vasquez is one of three mentees with a student mentor.

He said his mentor has helped him with networking and gave him insight into his career options.

“It’s almost like having a big brother who’s an engineering student,” Vasquez said.

Hackel said she hopes the program continues to grow from its current set of 23 mentoring pairs and pointed out that any student can apply, regardless of major.

Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.

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