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Two VCU Engineering undergrads will use their SMARTs to pursue education and Defense Department work

Sophie Kothe and Joseph Lee earn scholarships that support STEM students.

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Two Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduate engineering students have been awarded prestigious SMART Scholarships from the Defense Department. The program combines educational advancement and workforce development for students in STEM fields.

Sophie Kothe is studying biomedical engineering, and Joseph Lee is pursuing mechanical engineering – and both credit VCU mentors for helping spur their pursuits.

“I’ve had many great mentors and opportunities through VCU Engineering. I think I’ve been very fortunate with what I’ve experienced,” said Kothe, now a junior. “Mingyao Mou was the first Ph.D. candidate I ever shadowed under, and she was a huge mentor to me. She is incredibly kind and thoughtful. She helped teach me confidence in the lab setting and showed me how fun research can be.”

Lee cited Ravi Hadimani, Ph.D., associate professor and director of VCU’s Biomagnetics Laboratory, for taking him under his wing and teaching him skills not learned in a classroom setting.

“The two main things that have helped me to land this award are the problem-solving skills and mindset that I have acquired through my coursework as well as the interpersonal skills that I have honed,” said Lee, a junior. “All of these skills are vital.”

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Joseph Lee is a junior studying mechanical engineering. (Contributed photo)

The Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation Scholarship-for-Service Program helps recipients pursue their academic degrees and begin careers with the Defense Department. SMART offers full tuition support, annual stipends and internships ahead of post-graduation employment, with each year of degree funding equating to a year of DoD civilian work.

At VCU, Kothe and Lee have enjoyed working on a range of projects as part of their undergraduate experience.

Kothe, who began working in a lab during her second semester, is a member of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Society for Women Engineers. Her work related to various independent projects has been published twice.

Lee’s projects have included creating components that went into a patent for a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine, which treats neurological conditions, and developing code for an autonomous robot. Lee also is involved with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

For both students, inspiration is found from looking back and looking forward.

A photo of a woman from the chest up.
Sophie Kothe is a junior studying biomedical engineering. (Contributed photo)

Kothe said she is building on the legacy of the late computer scientist, mathematician and rocket engineer Annie Easley, who was one of the first African-Americans to work at NASA and who paved the way for ongoing generations of women in STEM. “I’m interested in taking on challenging roles in the DoD and working on projects with heavy impacts,” she said.

Lee added that “I have always been intrigued by the way things work – I would take things apart just to understand them and then put them back together.” Propelled by his favorite quote (“Ask, search, become”), he see his SMART Scholarship as a way to serve his country as well as science. “I want to create and innovate things that have not been seen or used before.”