A recent academic collaboration effort between Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic and the College of Charleston (CofC) has resulted in a win-win situation for the command, CofC students, local high school students and the warfighter.

What started as a professor searching for mentors for her students manifested into a new relationship with NIWC Atlantic. That relationship now enables college students to gain real-world research experience and career field knowledge that not only leads to job opportunities, but provides information warfare capabilities that protect the medical information of millions of warfighters and their dependents.

Amy Langville, a professor at CofC, wanted to offer her students a more diverse learning environment, one similar to an actual career experience. She reached out to one of her former students, Erin Langenstein, who earned both a Bachelor and Master of Science in Mathematical Science, with a concentration in Statistics from CofC.

According to Langenstein, the combination of having a great professor and the unique opportunity to have hands-on experience working with NIWC Atlantic’s Defense Health Information Technology (DHIT) division, allowed her to be the ideal candidate to fulfill Langville’s vision of having students mentored in a real-life research environment.

On the flip side, Langville is the reason that Langenstein decided to study mathematics. Langenstein took Langville’s classes, graded student work, conducted research, and received mentoring from her throughout her college career.

So, when Langville asked Langenstein to mentor some of her research students, she happily agreed.

“I was excited to be able to give back since she was so influential to my education and career path,” Langenstein said.

Langenstein initially interned with NIWC Atlantic Defense Health IT Division during the summer of 2019 as a predictive analyst on the Medical Information Delivery (MID) team. During this internship, she built an XGBoost model and application that predicted the likelihood for veteran overdose.

After completing her internship, Langenstein stayed on during the school year part-time to build other models, including one that tracks and predicts bed occupancy rates in military hospitals, and another that predicts veteran hearing loss.

“I always wanted to be in the healthcare field growing up, and after plenty of mentorship and internships, I realized how crucial it was to modernize healthcare informatics and that I had sufficient background knowledge and experience to be a part of this modernization,” Langenstein said.

In June 2020, Langenstein graduated with her master’s and NIWC Atlantic hired her as a data engineer focusing on cloud data migrations and Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) pipelines. Since joining the NIWC Atlantic workforce, she has automated countless ETL processes and completed a rotation with the DHIT Division’s Clinical Infrastructure Modernization (CIM) team as an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Engineer.

A year later, Langenstein began tackling a healthcare test data problem that needed copious amounts of test data, too much for a human to create manually. She automated a great deal of the process to create more than 6,000 datasets to test the Military Health System (MHS) and provide researchers data without the risk of using the real data.

In her current position as data innovation deputy, Langenstein is the technical lead for data science efforts and continues to research best practices for test data and encryption.

Thanks to her recent experiences with medical health systems and understanding of NIWC Atlantic’s potential internship opportunities, Langenstein envisioned Langville’s collaboration and mentorship idea as a plausible reality. She agreed to help her former professor, and following a review of the course intent, brainstormed some applicable problem sets that could benefit both students and NIWC Atlantic.

Langville’s research course consists of a mock consulting-type scenario during which the students are the consultants and industry mentors act as customers. These mentors create project ideas, and the students select which project they want to pursue for the semester.

A small team of students — Brianna Brunson, Maddox Johnston and Christy Charbonnet —chose to pursue one of Langenstein’s ideas: “As technology advances and the world transforms to be more data driven by the day, having reliable, safe, test data is paramount.”

“Although I gave several ideas for them to explore, they made the project and deliverables on their own,” Langenstein said. “The research students were very independent. I reached out to them occasionally with some ideas, but for the most part they excelled without much guidance.”

While partnering with Langenstein and the MID team, the students delved into recent literature regarding machine learning techniques to develop a simple proof-of-concept model that extracts PHI/PII from free text fields.

“Given the latitude to experiment with new approaches, this project gave us massive opportunities for growth and experimentation,” Brunson said. “We gained such a valuable research experience.”

From their work, the students built a Weighted Logistic Regression with L2-regularization to detect personally identifiable information (PII) in a synthetic dataset. The MID team intends to implement it in their test data pipeline.

“Implementing this model will improve our test data creation pipelines, further reducing data security risk on the warfighter,” Langenstein said.

Seeing the value gained from this venture, Langenstein took project ideas from the students’ research to create a curriculum for NIWC Atlantic’s STEM outreach program Creativity, Research, and Science Handbook (CRASH). The handbook offers collaborative mentoring projects in science, technology, engineering and math to prepare high school students for real world situations and help them develop skills they can take into the workforce.

“Essentially, the curriculum created has the concepts for test data, data security, PII and protected health information (PHI), but with analytics that are on par with a high school AP Statistics course,” Langenstein said.

Langenstein said she felt it was important to align the academic curriculum with industry needs so students can better learn about industry demands and figure out what interests them within certain careers — a sentiment echoed by her CofC mentees.

“Academic curriculum has to serve so many purposes and a particularly important purpose is preparing students for success in the workforce,” Brunson said. “Curriculum also has to be developed with both short and long-term needs of industry in mind or the students will not be effective in the workforce.”

“The best exposure for any student is to have real-world, hands-on experience to help them learn specifically what their interests are for potential careers,” Charbonnet said.

As a systems engineering student interested in the possibility of pursuing a career in defense manufacturing, Charbonnet said working with NIWC Atlantic not only helped her develop more skills for operations research, but also gave her the opportunity to learn more about “the many systems that are critical to meet our nation’s defense needs, how NIWC Atlantic meets those needs with their warfare capabilities, and all that NIWC Atlantic’s employees do to protect national security.”

For Brunson, working with NIWC Atlantic gave her the real-world experience she needed to launch a career in a field she loves. Two months after graduating from CofC this past May with a Master of Science in Mathematical Sciences and a concentration in Statistics, Brunson was hired as a New Professional by NIWC Atlantic and now serves as a data scientist for her current project on the Command Data team.

Just as students and institutions of higher education benefit from collaboration and mentorship programs with industry and government agencies, so too, do those agencies garner advantageous and holistic outcomes by expanding the hiring talent pool, while expediting the research and development of modern technologies, Brunson said.

“University students, particularly grad students, have tremendous access to academic resources and research, which inherently gives them access to novel technologies,” Brunson said. “Collaborating with colleges and universities provides industry and government agencies a diverse set of new perspectives, which are always helpful for further progress.”

Langenstein said she thinks this type of collaboration will blaze new trails for young professionals considering pursuing careers in engineering or other STEM fields, and she offers them the following advice:

“There are countless tools and resources available to our generation entering the workforce, so use every resource you can and pursue as many mentorship opportunities as possible,” Langenstein said. “As long as you identify what you need to learn, and don’t give up until you have figured it out, you will be a fantastic employee.”

About NIWC Atlantic: As a part of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, NIWC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, cyber and information technology capabilities.

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