Montana State University

MSU undergraduate receives prestigious Defense Department scholarship

May 4, 2009 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service

MSU junior Bryant Robbins has won a Department of Defense SMART scholarship. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- If nothing else, the events of the past month have taught Montana State University junior Bryant Robbins that you can't plan for the unexpected.

In early April, Robbins received a prestigious U.S. Department of Defense Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation, or SMART, scholarship.

The award will pay for all the costs of Robbins' final year at MSU, plus a $25,000 salary. After graduation, he will have to work as a scientist at federal research lab for 12 months.

Robbins, a civil engineering major and recipient of the state Board of Regents tuition waiver, applied for the scholarship in December. After months went by without word, he gave up hope and tried to convince himself that it had been a long shot.

"I was like, well, I missed it. I didn't expect to get it anyway," he remembered. "It was kind of like buying a lottery ticket. I just thought I'd try it and didn't expect to anything to happen."

But about a week after he gave up on winning, Robbins received a call from the program's coordinators. Not only was the 21-year-old still in the running, but he had been chosen as one of the finalists.

His reaction: "Holy crap! I'm still in the running for this?"

Founded six years ago, the SMART Scholarship for Service is a competitive program designed to increase the number of civilian engineers and scientists working at Defense Department laboratories, said Faye Evans, a program assistant in the scholarship's Washington, D.C., office.

"The program is a wonderful opportunity for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields to gain knowledge and contribute to important research conducted by the Department of Defense," Evans said.

Out of the 2,000 students who applied this year, only about 300 received the award. Robbins, along with another student at the University of Montana, are the first Montana students to win the scholarship. More often, the awards go to students from larger schools like Arizona State or MIT.

"You read through the list of scholarship recipients and the schools on there are so prestigious," he said. "I thought there was no way."

Winning the scholarship has turned Robbins' plans upside down. Before, he was considering staying in state and possibly working for the Montana Department of Transportation as a road designer.

"But everything has changed so much," said the 21-year-old Manhattan native. "Now I really don't know where I'll end up."

Robbins, who has never been farther south than Nevada or farther east than Iowa, now has a job waiting for him at the massive Engineering and Research Development Center, an Army Corps of Engineers lab complex in Vicksburg, Miss.

In Mississippi, Robbins will work in the complex's Geotechnical and Structures Lab, which researches topics such as rapid runway repair, bridge-building and methods to protect soldiers against improvised explosive devices.

Scott Keller and Jim Nallick, who supervise Robbins at his job with the Montana Department of Transportation's MSU-based design unit, said the Corps of Engineers will be lucky to have Robbins.

"Bryant is one of the brightest students we've seen come through in terms of raw talent," Keller said. "The Army Corps is going to get a heck of an employee."

Robbins has worked at the design unit for the past year, helping to design real-world road projects for the MDT. Nallick said that in that year, Robbins has become one of the design unit's "go-to" students.

"A brainiac, that's totally what he is," Nallick said. "He's one of those scary smart people, but also a really approachable guy."

Robbins graduated as valedictorian from high school in Eureka and has a 3.98 GPA at MSU. He's been married since May 2008.

Robbins, whose resume includes jobs as a summer firefighter, concrete worker and MSU resident adviser, said that it's comforting to have a job already lined up, especially given the tough job market right now.

"To know 16 months in advance that you're done looking for a job is a real relief," he said.

He said the fact that he won this scholarship, coming out of a smaller school like MSU, is a testament to the quality of MSU's engineering programs.

"Me receiving this award is just proof that MSU's engineering students are the same caliber as students graduating from elite schools across the country," he said. "Next year, I hope 20, 50 or 100 engineering students from MSU apply for this. There's no reason we shouldn't pull this off multiple times."

Robbins will spend the summer adjusting to the idea of moving to a different part of the country, attending orientation sessions and filling out paperwork for his new job, including a 28-page form that will grant him "secret" security clearance, a classification he didn't expect to have at age 21.

"I don't think I'm going to be doing 'normal' design," he said. "That's for sure."

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"MSU grad's research takes him to nation's capital," May 15, 2006 --

Contact: Michael Becker at 406-994-5140 or