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Engineering students named Department of Defense SMART Scholars

By Cassie Montgomery

Published: Jun 4, 2021 9:53:00 AM

The Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship is awarded annually by the Department of Defense. The Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship is awarded annually by the Department of Defense.
A photo of students Roberto Perera Aguiar and Lila Saunders.
Roberto Perera Aguiar and Lila Saunders

Two Auburn Engineering students have recently accepted SMART Scholarships from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD): doctoral student Roberto Perera Aguiar and rising junior Lila Saunders, both from the Department of Aerospace Engineering. The Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship-for-Service program is a prestigious scholarship that provides a combined education and career opportunity to students pursuing degrees in STEM fields that will enhance the DOD civilian workforce. 

In addition to financial support, SMART scholars receive guaranteed employment with DOD facilities during the summer and after graduation. Perera Aguiar is looking forward to contributing as a research scientist as part of the Naval Air Warfare Center/Weapons Division (NAWCWD). 

“I am most humbled and grateful to the SMART Scholarship program and for NAWCWD for granting me this life-changing opportunity, which brings me the highest honor to serve and represent the nation,” he said. “I am eagerly looking forward to working very hard in order to contribute towards cutting-edge DOD research projects.” 

After completing her aerospace engineering degree, Saunders will launch her career with the Army Research and Analysis Center located at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. There she’ll be working in ground operations research and analysis.

“I am required through the scholarship to fulfill a two-year stint within the DOD, but I’d actually like to begin a career with them,” she said. “It’s been my dream job for as long as I can remember.” 

Both students’ passion for aerospace engineering began when they were young. Saunders developed a love for all things that fly and saw aerospace engineering as the right fit. Perera Aguiar’s interest in aerospace engineering began with popular culture and grew through the inspiring example set by his parents. 

“As a typical child, I discovered my passion for aerospace engineering during the 1999 release of Star Wars: Episode I, as well as the success of the International Space Station,” he said. “However, it was during my undergraduate studies at the University of Florida that I realized my deepest passion to work at the forefront of technology and collaborate in the making of new scientific discoveries. As a result, I was inspired to follow in my parents’ footsteps and pursue a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering.”

In his doctoral work, Perera Aguiar is investigating the integration of machine learning and artificial intelligence methods, and the solid mechanics of space structures and 3D printed materials under the advisement of Vinamra Agrawal, assistant professor of aerospace engineering.

“After completing my doctorate degree, I hope to stay at the forefront of technology through Department of Defense research facilities and work hard to collaborate towards new scientific discoveries,” he said. “Ultimately, as new technologies arise, I strive to work on the development of new dynamic machine learning models in order to better our understanding of complex physical phenomena in challenging problems of solid mechanics and materials science.” 

While the process to apply for the SMART Scholarship program can be lengthy, Saunders wholeheartedly recommends interested STEM students to pursue the opportunity. 

“Anyone who is thinking of applying for the SMART Scholarship should do it and do not hesitate. It has truly changed my life. The opportunity is a win-win-win-win,” she said. 

Media Contact: Cassie Montgomery,, 334.844.3668

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