by Rachel Berry, Communications Analyst, DACM Office
Hearty congratulations to Lt. Col. John M. Williams II, who received his Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary material science program from Vanderbilt University in March 2022. A triumphant ending to a story he began writing at the start of his Ph.D. journey in 2019 as part of a pilot program within the Army Director for Acquisition Career Management’s Advanced Civil Schooling (ACS) program.
The goal of the pilot was to support Army acquisition officers with advanced degrees in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to achieve a Ph.D. in a related field tied to an Army modernization strategy. He chose Vanderbilt because of the school’s established relationship with Army Futures Command (AFC). This opportunity afforded Williams the ability to research topics that directly tied back to ongoing work with AFC, with results that will have a lasting impact for future technology, regarding energy challenges Soldiers face in the field.
Williams has a lot to share about his Ph.D. research experience and what comes next. I spoke with him recently about his doctoral journey:
Describe your experience as an ACS Ph.D. candidate conducting research that connects to ongoing projects with the Army.
The very cool part about the research experience for me was the opportunity to keep asking questions and have the ability to work to find the answers. Advanced STEM research is often so foundational that while the future goal is known, it’s hard to nail down specific attributes for specific purposes. When I chose my advisor, I knew nothing about electrochemistry or solar cells. I did, on the other hand, have a lot of experience in Army labs, and in modernization science and technology deep dives.
Prior to beginning the Ph.D. program, I was the assistant program manager for the Science & Technology Portfolio Integration at the Combat Capabilities Development Command, Chemical Biological Center. When AFC stood up, each of the eight Cross-Functional Teams (CFTs) held multiple science and technology deep dives. During these events, the scientists and engineers from the different Army labs came to brief CFT leadership on their projects. This helped CFT leaders determine which projects would be funded. I attended many of these deep dives representing the Chemical Biological Center and briefed a number of technologies we thought were beneficial to the CFTs. This experience forced me to start asking questions about the research, and really focus my efforts to answer questions I would expect a senior acquisition officer to ask about the technology. Further, these experiences gave me a good head start for the Ph.D. research experience and created a very powerful dynamic where each new question I asked provided a new direction to look. Each failure forced me to re-evaluate the approach, and each success had to be woven into a clear, concise message I could bring back to senior leaders. It also helped being able to build on Dr. David Baker’s work in the field. (Baker is the Army subject matter expert on Biohybrid photovoltaics at Army Research Laboratory). I leaned heavily on him as a member of my committee. I wanted to make sure I learned from his previous efforts, and that my successes could be applied to their Biohybrid photovoltaics work.
What were the last three years like for you?
I was fortunate to be able to complete my Ph.D. program in three years. STEM-related Ph.D. programs are usually five years long, and the first year consists of rotating through labs and looking for the right advisor. After that you need to pick the right projects within the lab to focus on, and then, finding a way to connect those projects into a dissertation. I knew right away who my adviser was, what my project would be, and had an idea of how I would connect the dissertation because I was focused on my application into the program. That made my life much, much easier, and I was able to jump right into the program and get moving on my research.
They were full and busy days, but very rewarding.
What is the lasting impact of Army officers participating in the ACS Ph.D. program from the perspective of operational warfighters working with researchers?
I think the lasting impact is better strategic decision making with regard to new technology. The Army currently employs roughly 42 senior research scientist positions, known as STs—senior scientists whose civilian ranks are equivalent to senior executive service and flag officers, and while they set the strategic plans for their individual fields, they cannot be dispersed everywhere they are needed to truly shape the Army’s approaches to modernization. I see this program as a means of producing field grade officers who can better bridge the great work of our STs, our Army labs, our science advisors, our formations, our schools and requirements communities to remove some of the resistance and inertia within the modernization process due to miscommunication, and help broker more productive exchanges between the communities. In my next job as the field assistance in science & technology director in the Pacific, I truly see my role as a connector, creating an environment for innovation by bridging the needs or wants of the warfighters in theater with the entire science and technology enterprise.
What opportunities were you afforded from this experience in the near term and potentially in the future?
The various colloquiums and talks from visiting professors and leading researchers in a variety of fields was one of the most important parts of this program. The Army didn’t send me here just to become a great researcher; they wanted me credentialed in this field to be able to communicate the cutting edge of technology. Listening to these various talks across the entire gamut of topics, from future two-dimensional materials, to advanced cryogenic electron microscopy of viruses, and perovskite quantum dot applications, I have been exposed to so much. These experiences will allow me to better explain the possibilities of these technologies as they mature.
For those who are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. as part of the ACS program, Williams has a few words of encouragement… “Do it. Absolutely, do it.” He also encourages those who do not have a STEM background to pursue the ACS program, which allows Army officers a chance to obtain advanced degrees in STEM, acquisition or business-related disciplines at civilian universities on a full-time, fully funded basis. The Acquisition Tuition Assistance Program is a similar program open to eligible Army Acquisition Workforce members and military occupational specialty (MOS) 51 contracting (51C) noncommissioned officers. Williams sees himself as proof of value in the investment the Army made to his skillset and is ready to apply all he’s learned on his next assignment.
Congratulations again to Lt. Col. John M. Williams II on this achievement.
For more information on the Advanced Civil School program and how to apply, go to: https://asc.army.mil/web/career-development/programs/advanced-civil-schooling/.