AFRL, UNM partner in mentoring program

  • Published
  • By Argen Duncan
  • Nucleus editor
Air Force Research Laboratory researchers are putting in their own time and energy to help aspiring scientists and engineers succeed and maybe even come to work at the lab.

The AFRL Mentoring Program offered through the University of New Mexico STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Collaborative Center connects researchers and students in mentoring relationships. This semester was the first for the program, and eight scientists mentored eight students.

Chemical engineering student Maria Oroyan, a sophomore, said she became involved in the program after joining STEM Collaborative events, including an AFRL tour, last summer. AFRL chemist Jaime Stearns, a member of the lab Women's Forum, has been Oroyan's mentor.

"I definitely thought it was a valuable experience," Oroyan said. "It wasn't just about learning science and technology, but life skills as well."

Stearns said she wanted to encourage other women to go into science and engineering careers, since only 12-15 percent of people in those fields are female. She also remembers how encouragement from others helped her as she was starting her career.

"There were always people there that had more ambition for me than I had for myself," Stearns said. "This is my way of paying that back, trying to be that for other people."

She said she'd enjoyed getting to know Oroyan, who knows what she's doing in life.

STEM Collaborative Program Specialist Tara Hackel said she began working with Fernando "Doc" Aguilar of AFRL through a memorandum of understanding last spring. They wanted to engage UNM students and get them interested in careers and internships at AFRL.

Hackel said the nationally competitive AFRL Scholars Program offers paid internships, and the tours and mentoring help UNM students be more competitive by offering background knowledge of the lab.

When Hackel met with the Women's Forum, members expressed interest in mentoring. Scientists volunteered to help Hackel design the mentoring program.

"Basically, the way it was set up was to be extremely informal," she said.

The program gives mentors a little guidance and organizes three events per semester. Otherwise, the mentoring pairs meet one-on-one regularly on their own schedules. Scientists volunteer to become mentors, and the program is open to male and female students in any major.

"All of our programs are extremely inclusive of all majors," Hackel said. "We want to expose all our students to STEM because we think it's applicable to all majors."

To get started, students complete an interest form. Then, STEM Collaborative and AFRL staff place them with researchers based on professional or personal interests.

Hackel is hoping to recruit 24 student-scientist pairs to participate next semester. Oroyan plans to sign up again and recommends the mentoring to other students. Stearns won't be able to take part in the spring because she plans to work in California for three months. However, she intends to stay in touch with Oroyan and rejoin the mentoring program when she returns.

A five-year, $2.6 million U.S. Department of Education grant is paying for STEM Collaborative activities, including the mentoring program. Hackel said when the grant runs out, UNM will know how to run the collaborative, and she hopes it will become permanent.

Students and researchers interested in participating in the mentoring program can contact Hackel at 277-0878 or The application deadline for students is 7 p.m. Jan. 25.