Flying high: PSU math student lands full-ride scholarship, Air Force job

Portland State grad student Rebecca Bryant is carrying on her family’s legacy in the U.S. Air Force — but blazing her own path as a math researcher, thanks to a scholarship from the Department of Defense.

Bryant, who just finished her second year in PSU’s Mathematical Sciences doctoral program, landed the nationally competitive Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) scholarship. The program provides her with full tuition, annual stipends, summer internships and guaranteed employment at a Department of Defense facility after graduation.

“I know that me winning this scholarship is a direct result of [my parents’] endless love and support,” she said. “My parents were both officers in the U.S. Air Force, and to win a scholarship from the Department of Defense to do research with the Air Force is such a great way to honor my mom and dad.”

Rebecca Bryant as a baby with her mom, Capt. Melissa Bryant (Courtesy of Rebecca Bryant).

Bryant says she applied to grad school with the end goal of wanting to do mathematical research for the Air Force. When she learned of PSU math professor Jay Gopalakrishnan’s collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab, coming to PSU was a no-brainer.

“His work is directly aligned with my goals, and this has been the best experience I could have asked for,” she said of her advisor.

Always a solid math student, Bryant was drawn to the field when she took calculus, loving that it provided mathematical explanations for real-world and physical phenomena. She majored in math as an undergrad and with each class became more interested in applied math.

Going to grad school was a natural next step for her when she learned she could make a career out of supporting the Air Force through the field of math — all while honoring her parents and protecting her younger sister who just commissioned into the Air Force.

Rebecca Bryant, second from right, with her family during her sister Rachel’s commissioning ceremony as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

Her research focuses on mathematical applications and numerical techniques for solving physical problems, particularly in optics. As part of the SMART program, Bryant will spend her summers interning at her sponsoring facility, the Air Force Research Lab Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, New Mexico, under the mentorship of Jacob Grosek.

“Because Dr. Gopalakrishnan works so closely with my SMART mentor Dr. Grosek, I’m very lucky that my work throughout the year and during the summer will be streamlined,” she said.

Once she graduates from PSU, she’ll work for the Air Force Research Lab. She plans to stay with the Air Force long-term and hopes to eventually work at a lab closer to her family in Atlanta, Georgia.

Her advice for fellow Viks:

“Ask for help and learn how to communicate abundantly clearly with those you work with. Invest in your peers and take the time to celebrate each other’s successes and support each other during challenging times. 

“As for fellowship applications, form relationships with the faculty in your department so that they can speak to your character as well as your academic work. Be sure to align your application with the mission of the program that you’re applying for!”

About the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences: We’re Portland State’s largest and most diverse college, with 24 departments spanning the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences.

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