Puerto Rican duo groomed by Navy Research inspire STEM throughout island
The talent of two U.S. Naval Research Laboratory research engineers from Puerto Rico speaks to the promise and potential of a new generation of the science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce.
As college students, Freddie Santiago and Carlos Font inspired STEM programs in Puerto Rico that still operate today, gaining them an intellectual reputation that would later bring them international recognition.
“We were both part of the Physics Student Society at University Puerto Rico — Mayagüez,” said Font, who today is a researcher with NRL’s Advanced Systems Technology Branch.
“During that time, we both prepared physics demonstrations with our professors to convey physical concepts to other students,” he said.
Word quickly spread throughout Puerto Rico about their talent and the excitement of their scientific demonstrations.
“Freddie and I began presenting those demonstrations in front of university communities, the general public, and local schools in Puerto Rico to promote physics as a career,” Font continued.
Their small demos meant for peer enrichment eventually blossomed into a mobilized STEM presentation and recruiting tool.
“Around that time the UPRM started a program called the Alliance for the Enrichment of Math and Sciences (AFAMaC) to bring STEM concepts in the form of experimental demos into middle and high school classrooms, where we worked with the initial team establishing demo curriculum and traveling around the island presenting at different venues,” said Santiago, who is now a researcher with NRL’s Remote Sensing Division.
“The program also involved a professional development element to support teachers incorporating new methodologies in their classroom,” he said.
Inspiring multitudes of students and completing undergraduate and graduate physics degrees from UPR-Mayagüez was only the beginning. During their undergraduate years, Font and Santiago also began work on a laser system that would win them esteem within the Navy’s greater research and development community.
“Initially the system we designed and developed was to measure the effects of atmospheric turbulence on a propagation laser beam through the atmosphere over a marine environment,” Font explained.
Given the Department of Defense’s growing interest in directed energy and the Navy’s need for new capabilities for marine environments, their work showed a keen sense of foresight.
After they had impressed UPR-Mayagüez school officials and other academic entities throughout the island, their school advisor introduced them to Sergio Restaino, Ph.D., a researcher from NRL’s Remote Sensing Division.
“Our advisor from UPRM met Restaino and, considering [NRL’s] interest in the research area, he invited Restaino to Puerto Rico to witness our small experiment campaign in Puerto Rico,” Font said.
This was the duo’s chance to showcase their skills in the pursuit of new opportunity, and so they did. Soon after, they began their professional development with NRL and their introduction to the Navy’s global research enterprise.
“The relationship grew between UPRM and NRL, and we were invited by Restaino for summer internship with his NRL group in New Mexico,” Santiago said. “We then prepared and planned for what became a multi-year data collection campaign between NRL and UPRM.”
Apart but collaborating
For the next few years, Restaino would travel to Puerto Rico and perform data collection campaigns with Font and Santiago. As their collaborative research and internships continued, their work resulted in involvement with other research divisions at NRL.
While Santiago focused on studying remote sensing applications and optical propagation through the atmosphere for imaging, Font studied optical propagation through the atmosphere for free-space optical laser communication.
“These different focus areas took us to different divisions at NRL, but [we were] always collaborating within our core research area, the propagation of a laser beam through a turbulent media,” Santiago said.
Santiago earned his doctorate in electrical engineering from University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Font earned his doctorate in electrical engineering at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Now, the two conduct research at NRL, where they have access to the nation’s most sophisticated science and technology, and where they are contributing to the development of complex laser and optical technologies.