REVU puts ‘boots on the ground’ to get vets research experience
Sometimes, being all that you can be requires a lab coat and a tank full of fruit flies.
Or perhaps, after serving your country, what you need most is a state-of-the-art physics lab, or a network of seismographic stations, or a pair of robotic arms. The point is, military veterans interested in science careers say there is a deep need for programs that give them real research experience.
This is where the Research Experience for Veteran Undergraduates (REVU) program at Yale can help.
“Getting vets interested in different fields — a plethora of different fields — is important,” says REVU participant Teresa Carter, who spent five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and is now an undergrad at Middle Tennessee State University majoring in psychology. “We’ve had to endure and systematically deal with all kinds of obstacles, and we just don’t quit. That attitude is beneficial in all sectors of the working world, including science. But there’s a lull after you get out of the military, and that’s when you need support.”
Designed by Yale astrophysicist Marla Geha and supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), REVU is a nine-week summer research program that immerses a select group of vets in the scientific life.
They live on campus, join a research group led by a senior faculty member, conduct research as part of a working lab, and develop professional skills in a discipline aligned with their interests. This year, the program’s first, saw seven vets arrive in New Haven and immediately dive into projects in neuroscience, quantum physics, pathology, geothermal dynamics, and microbiology.
“A lot of evidence suggests that even just one research experience can have an incredible impact on what undergraduates do later in life,” says Geha, whose honors include a John S. Guggenheim Fellowship, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and being named one of Popular Science magazine’s “Brilliant 10” young scientists in 2009. Her own research specialty is studying the least-luminous galaxies — the ones that tend to be overlooked.
A million-dollar idea
For Geha, the launch of REVU is part of a long-term commitment to veterans’ education that began in 2012 when she volunteered as an instructor and advisor for the Warrior-Scholar Project.
The Warrior-Scholar Project — founded at Yale by alumni Christopher Howell ’14, Jesse Reising ’11, and Nick Rugoff ’11 — runs two-week college preparatory boot camps on university campuses around the country. The idea is to help enlisted veterans learn the skills they’ll need to succeed at college, while instilling them with confidence that they can thrive in an academic environment.
“These men and women would come here in the summer and no matter what branch of the service they’re from, they have this set of skills that are exactly what I’m looking for in a lab member,” Geha says.
In 2016, Geha designed a science boot camp for the Warrior-Scholar Project; prior to that, the focus had been on reading and writing skills. Geha’s pilot course that year was a success, enough so that she wanted to “franchise” the concept and help create a community of veterans who could make the transition to careers in science.
Toward the end of 2017, Geha found her chance. HHMI named her one of its HHMI Professors, agreeing to give her $1 million over five years to establish REVU as a model for other programs nationwide.
Her philosophy in building-out this first summer of REVU was simple: If the Warrior-Scholar Project is aimed at bolstering successful undergrads, REVU would aim at graduate education and beyond. She would give her students a proper grounding in laboratory best practices, show them how to collaborate in a live experiment using the latest technology, develop their understanding of scientific literature, and teach them to communicate their work effectively.
“This is the next step,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to lay the foundation for.”
Finding something cool
Twice a week, the REVU students meet for a group session led by Geha and Jeremy Bradford, who holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics and is curriculum and assessment manager for the Warrior-Scholar Project and REVU at Yale. When the weather allows, the group meets in the courtyard of Pauli Murray College, where the students have been staying for the summer.
On this particular day, they pull a bunch of big, wooden chairs around two tables and compare notes on their progress as scientists-in-training.
“There’s new data every day,” says Daniel Allen, a former U.S. Army rifleman in the 2nd Ranger Battalion and sniper in the 101st Airborne Division. He’s working in the lab of Yale geophysicist Maureen Long, conducting field monitoring of a network of seismometers studying the deep structure of rocks beneath Connecticut’s surface.
“We’re studying how plate tectonics affect the deep Earth,” Allen says. “I’ve been thinking, ‘What if we could use this information to predict how seismic waves travel and what that means for public safety?’”
DeLia Kennedy, a U.S. Navy veteran studying biology at Hampton University, told the group about participating in her first autopsy. She’s working in the lab of Michael Caplan, the C.N.H. Long Professor of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, professor of cell biology, and chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology.
The lab is investigating how to block receptors that enable kidney disease. During the autopsy, Kennedy identified the rare kidney disease she was studying in the lab; she explained it to the attending interns.
“My stomach didn’t get sick until afterwards,” Kennedy says. “I just ate vegetables that day.”
Each vet has an update: Jared Fox, a Marine veteran at El Camino College in California, explores the boundaries of quantum mechanics in the lab of physicist Jack Harris; former Green Beret Justin Jensen of Baylor University, now in the lab of assistant professor of dermatology and pathology Peggy Myung, is hip-deep in details for submitting a study to an academic journal; Navy vet Frederick Cordova from Columbia University talks about the intricacies of working with fruit flies in Damon Clark’s biology lab.
“The project I’m working on will tell us more about how neurons fire — our own neurons,” Cordova says.
The conversation, led by Bradford, moves along briskly. The students share their rookie lab mistakes, take a stab at relating their experiments to the larger public good, and agree that veterans are particularly well-suited to breaking down complex topics into their essential parts.
“Science takes a lot of time,” says Haris Gargovic, a Marine veteran who attends Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill. He’s been working in the lab of Yale geneticist Bluma Lesch.
“People don’t realize how long it actually takes,” Gargovic says. “When you’re dealing with living cells, one thing branches off into another, and another, and another.”
“And that’s when you find something cool,” Geha says.
Carter, the Marine veteran from Tennessee, is very much at home in professor Paul Turner’s biology lab on Science Hill. On one recent afternoon, she dons a white coat and gloves, grabs some sealed containers from a refrigerated case, and gets right to work.
Carter and her colleagues are studying strains of the bacteria e coli that are resistant to antibiotics. The work involves testing how e coli react when bacterial phages — viruses that infect bacteria — are introduced.
“We’ve tested five strains of them,” Carter says, as she begins to work at a bench. “It was a steep learning curve for me, because I’d never worked with bacteria. But I like it. I’m a nerd.”
Carter is also a first-generation Marine and college student. She jokes that she joined the Marines out of “spite” when someone warned her the military was a man’s world. She spent five years as an avionics technician on F-18 fighter jets.
“I always try to find ways to make a process faster or more efficient,” she says. During the first couple of weeks of REVU, Carter would type up questions for her lab partners, asking why they did things in one way rather than another, and solicit ideas for additional reading material to help her understand the science. She’s also taking two online courses, one in literature and one in psychology.
Her goal is to become a psychiatrist and work with other vets. She’s already quite active in veterans’ groups at her home college; it was one of the vets there, in fact, who told her about REVU.
The experience has been an eye-opener, she says: “You have to stand on your toes in science and be ready to answer questions you weren’t expecting. There’s always something new.”
Meanwhile, in a lab at the Yale School of Medicine on Cedar Street, Gargovic is immersed in the details of life as a genetics researcher.
The Lesch lab, where he works, studies the genetics and epigenetics of reproduction and development. Lab members are busy growing cell cultures, extracting DNA, and looking at specific genes in mice. Gargovic has been helping with experiments on a protein that packages and condenses DNA in sperm.
For Gargovic, this daily routine is vastly different from his days as a combat engineer working in demolitions, including finding improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Still, Gargovic says, both endeavors require an absolute attention to detail and a high level of cohesion among unit members.
“The biggest thing REVU has given me is confidence,” Gargovic says. “Coming into it, I knew I wanted to study science, but I had no idea of the possibilities. I didn’t know if I could do the research part of it. REVU puts you right in the middle of it.”
Like Carter, Gargovic is a first-generation college student. He’d initially thought of becoming a marine biologist, but found himself increasingly drawn to molecular biology and genetics. Also like Carter, he took meticulous notes to get up to speed on research procedures and skills that were old hat to other members of the lab.
“Even growing the cell cultures — for them it was the most basic thing. But I had to learn how to properly plate the cells,” Gargovic says. “You realize quickly how little you really know. But the people in my lab were very willing to work with me and I was immediately part of the team.”
Gargovic will be staying on the team, too, as a Yale student. He’s been accepted into the Eli Whitney Students Program, aimed at non-traditional students with high potential. He credits REVU and the Warrior-Scholar program with making his transition to Yale possible.
“The best thing about REVU is you see everything a researcher goes through: planning, troubleshooting, getting results. That’s rare, and there’s no sugar-coating of the experience,” he says.
What comes next
By the end of this first REVU summer, the participants have developed an easy rapport with each other, their lab partners, and the campus.
One of their final projects is a poster session, held at the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. The vets arrive for the event all gussied up in formal attire, ready to describe their research projects for visitors who stop by to look at the highly detailed posters.
“Before this, I didn’t know if I wanted to get a Ph.D. in science or go work for a company as a researcher,” says Cordova, as people start to fill the room. “I know now that I want to continue this process.”
A few feet away, Fox greets a few of his lab partners like old friends; Kennedy has the full attention of listeners as she describes autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease; Allen, wearing a necktie, arrives from his latest field jaunt to smiles and handshakes.
In the center of everything, Geha is already thinking about what comes next. She wants to organize a conference around the REVU idea and find like-minded academics who understand the skills that veterans can bring to scientific work.
“This can’t just be here at Yale,” Geha says. “This has to be available on many other college campuses, as soon as possible.”
For more information about REVU, visit the program website.