CIRCUIT Sparks Investment in the Next Generation of STEM Professionals

Thu, 10/06/2022 - 16:32
Katie Kerrigan

Five years after researchers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, first partnered with Johns Hopkins University (JHU) students to map the brain at nanoscale resolution as part of CIRCUIT’s pilot (initially called the Connectomics Institute for Reconstructing Cortex: Understanding Intelligence Together), the program has now welcomed more than 220 students. From artificial intelligence to precision medicine, connectomics, planetary exploration and cybersecurity, these students are getting hands-on experience and delivering solutions for real-world problems.

“We have over 100 CIRCUIT-affiliated participants working on more than 20 projects around the Lab this year,” said Martha Cervantes, an engineer in APL’s Research and Exploratory Development Department (REDD). “We’ve seen continued growth of the program since our very first session. That’s due, in large part, to the Laboratory’s continued commitment to develop and empower a diverse candidate pool in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, as well as the need for passionate, early-career researchers at APL.”

CIRCUIT participants share their work
CIRCUIT participants shared their work with peers and APL staff members during the showcase’s poster session in the atrium of Building 201.

Credit: Johns Hopkins APL

No one knows more about the growth of the program than Cervantes, a former participant and current CIRCUIT program manager, and Will Gray-Roncal, who launched CIRCUIT in 2017 to support neuroscience research he was working on at the Lab. He and his colleagues were working on a project that leveraged artificial intelligence and machine learning to help map the brain.

“We needed to verify that the machine-learning algorithms were correctly mapping neuron connections,” Gray-Roncal explained. “It was very labor intensive because we had many terabytes of data that needed to be validated. I pitched the idea to have undergraduate students from Johns Hopkins University join us, and the program took off from there.”

About 25 JHU students joined APL for a 10-week program that first summer. They were selected with support from the Hopkins Office of Undergraduate Research, focusing on high-achieving students from across the university’s Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science and Neuroscience departments. Many of the students came from backgrounds underserved or underrepresented in research and STEM.

“We were performing sponsor-supported work and delivering efficient, high-quality products within that mission. We had to hold ourselves and the students to an extremely high standard; their research mattered. We weren’t using charitable dollars only for the benefit of student success. We were leading critical sponsor-funded research at the Lab and using our resources in an efficient way,” explained Gray-Roncal.

The full-time, immersive experience proved invaluable for many participants, with several accepting full-time jobs at APL and pursuing graduate degrees after the program ended.

“When we first built the program, we wanted to support trailblazing students,” shared Gray-Roncal. “We were looking for committed, high-potential students with a passion for research and science who also faced a barrier, such as a first-generation college student, or someone from a low income or facing systemic barriers. Maybe they had familial obligations that simply hadn’t allowed them to take advantages of opportunities to demonstrate they were exceptional early-career scientists and engineers.”

Gray-Roncal and his wife, Karla, an APL researcher and neurology resident at Johns Hopkins Medicine, were familiar with the need for research and STEM opportunities for underserved students. Will grew up in east Tennessee, where, he shared, “my town had more cows than people. Science wasn’t cool, and the opportunities for research were far and few between.”

Karla immigrated to the United States from Peru as a young child and came from a low-income family, but she always had a strong interest in STEM. The two met at freshman orientation at Vanderbilt University, earned bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering, and eventually got married and moved around the country to continue their studies before settling at APL. They volunteered with Howard County Public Schools a few times a week to mentor and tutor students but felt as if they weren’t moving the needle.

“We kept finding mismatches between capability and opportunity,” said Karla. “Whether it was happening to us on our own career journeys, or to our friends, or watching it happen in our communities, we saw over and over again how limited opportunities and encouragement can be for students without access to resources and mentors to further pursue STEM interests and studies outside the classroom.”

With support from APL leadership, the husband-and-wife duo launched the College Prep Program in 2009, foreshadowing their continued commitment to STEM education and the later formation of CIRCUIT.

As CIRCUIT continued after the summer of 2017, students began working in groups throughout REDD, and then throughout the Laboratory. To support the growing demand, CIRCUIT was established as a formal group in 2022, with an increase in teaching assistants, technical mentors, operations support, resources and even a name change — the acronym now stands for Cohort-based Integrated Research Community for Undergraduate Innovation and Trailblazing. Expanding from a typical summer internship, CIRCUIT is now a yearlong immersive program and provides a paid training, mentoring and research experience during the summer session, along with research credit for students’ work during the school year.

Gray-Roncal continues to lead the effort alongside Cervantes, who participated in the inaugural CIRCUIT program cohort in 2017 and was one of the first students to transition from that program to an APL internship and then to a full-time position.

Another past participant turned full-time APL researcher, Daniel Xenes, now works in REDD’s Connectomics & Learning section after joining CIRCUIT in 2018. “I come from a Cuban immigrant family and am a first-generation college student,” said Xenes. “CIRCUIT intrigued me because they focused particularly on trailblazing students, many first-generation college students just like me, and making sure we knew there were no limitations to our success.”

While participating in CIRCUIT, Xenes supported the Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) project, launched to develop state-of-the-art machine-learning capabilities by modeling how the brain processes information. His work on the project was a precursor to what he’s currently working on at the Lab.

“CIRCUIT was my first exposure to artificial intelligence, data science, neuroscience and software development, all of which are my biggest strengths,” Xenes shared. “But what I took most from the program was the development of my soft skills — how to work with teams of researchers, how to transition from school to a full-time research position, how to challenge myself and take my research a step further.”

John Bigelow, REDD managing executive, says the determination and diversity of CIRCUIT students brings fresh perspectives to the challenges APL tackles every day. “I cannot overstate how impressive these students are,” he said. “They are a driven and diverse group of candidates immersed in research and development, creating novel and innovative solutions, while understanding what it takes to apply themselves in a workplace as dynamic as APL. Through this program, they provide a tremendous resource for APL and the nation.”

These attributes were on full display at the 2022 CIRCUIT Summer Showcase on August 18. Participants presented findings from projects on topics such as climate change, COVID-19 tracing, cybersecurity and solar system exploration supporting various missions in REDD and the Air and Missile Defense, Asymmetric Operations, and Space Exploration sectors.

“We believe that CIRCUIT can grow into a national blueprint for how to develop a diverse, domestic STEM workforce,” said Gray-Roncal. “By focusing on equity and access, and giving everyone a fair chance to succeed, we are organically able to identify and train early-career leaders and create a wonderfully diverse and talented mission-ready cohort.”

If you are interested in learning more about CIRCUIT and/or mentorship and research opportunities, please contact Will Gray-Roncal or Martha Cervantes at