The impact of networking when applying to the SMART Program and tips for navigating graduate school

My name is Katrina Colucci-Chang. I am a 4th year PhD student in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Tech. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and did my undergraduate at George Mason University where I earned a BS in Bioengineering with a concentration in Signals and Systems and a minor in Dance.

My story of how I got to where I am today contains a lot of twists and turns. Back in Puerto Rico, I was very active in my school’s science and math clubs. I would also do science fair projects and compete at both the state and international levels. Additionally, I would dance at the Western Ballet Theater and perform at recitals, such as Dracula, Nutcracker, and Giselle. It was my love for dance, science, and math that really made me want to go into engineering. It interested me in solving problems that dancers had, such as muscle fatigue, broken bones, etc.

I initially went to North Carolina State University to study Chemical Engineering. During that time, my family decided to move to Washington, DC. Although I was really close to my family, I did not feel comfortable telling them that I was lonely. I had completed a summer at George Mason University and I really liked the convenience of going to class and coming home to study. One weekend when my father was visiting, I told him how I felt. I remember that without hesitation he said happily, “Come home, we will figure this out, everything is okay.” Either my dad knew and was just waiting for me to say something or he really wanted me to come home.

Shortly after, I transferred to George Mason University and had internships with the Department of Energy, NASA (twice), and the U.S. Army. I even received two job offers with two different agencies after I graduated. However, I did not feel that I knew what biomedical or bioengineering was, so I decided to go to graduate school. I made this decision because I wanted to learn a new topic and challenge myself to become a better researcher. I was accepted to all the schools I applied to, except for one. Ultimately, I decided to pursue my graduate degree at Virginia Tech.

You may be wondering how the SMART program came into this. The SMART Program is a program funded by the US Department of Defense (DoD) that funds both undergraduate and graduate students studying STEM. I had heard about the SMART program back in high school. In order to apply to the program, applicants must be at least an undergraduate student. I first applied my freshman year, but I was not accepted. Then, I applied my last year of undergrad and was chosen as a finalist, but ultimately was not selected. During the summer right before I started graduate school, I was working with the Army and met someone who had been admitted into the SMART program. He told me the reason he was admitted into the program was because he knew someone within the Army who had the funding to pay for his schooling.

Essentially, it seemed he was accepted because of networking. He also emailed other agencies just to get his name out there. The reason networking is important for this program is because once you are a finalist, a database/excel sheet is created by the program. Different agencies have a certain amount of days to look over this document that has 1000+ names, and therefore, the best way to get selected is to network and show interest.

When I applied for my third and final time, I did just that. I emailed agencies saying that I had applied to the program. Some did not respond, others were gracious enough to respond and say they were not interested, and the rest said, "Let us know if you become a finalist." Once I became a finalist, I emailed those who had expressed some interest to announce that I was essentially “up for grabs.” Through this method, I got in contact with NAVAIR. They were really interested in the work I did at NASA and in biomedical engineering. At the end of the conversation, they said I was the “perfect fit and exactly what they were looking for.” A couple of months later, I got an official email saying that I was accepted into the program as a 2018 SMART Scholar. I received funding for five years of my graduate degree. So here I am now, studying Biomedical Engineering with a guaranteed job after graduation.

Bonus: My tips for dealing with graduate school hardships

My graduate career has not been easy. On the academic side, I had a lot of challenges along the way, mostly communication-related issues. But on the social and personal side, at Virginia Tech, I really understood the concept of racism. Growing up in Puerto Rico and North Virginia, you were either with your people or in a melting pot. In contrast, Virginia Tech is a predominantly white school. It was fascinating to me to be called caramel skin, because I was neither white nor black. I experienced some racist comments and possibly, academic sabotage.

However, I have taken all of these experiences as circumstances from which I have learned to grow. People who commit these acts may not be aware of what they are doing, but my philosophy is to educate them and be hopeful that these acts were committed without malicious intent. I am typically asked what people can learn from my experience and what have I learned over the years. As a typical engineer, I will summarize this in three points. Haha!

  1. Don’t be embarrassed by your failures. I was embarrassed by the fact that I switched universities in undergrad, but now I realize that NC State was not the right place for me. I had to do a summer at George Mason in order to find the perfect undergrad university for me.

  2. Mentors/networking does wonders for your career. I thank my mentors for getting me to where I am today, especially the SMART program. At first I was hesitant to write emails to the agencies, but my mentor in graduate school said, “Do it. What do you have to lose?

  3. Educate people on their mistakes. People seem to respond to positive feedback/criticism. I believe that showing kindness is the way to change the world. I know… it is easier said than done, and something I am still working on myself. Yes, people might trample you or take advantage of you, but at the end of the day, you can be the bigger person. Trust me, the world needs more people like that.


Katrina Colucci-Chang

Katrina is a 4th year Ph.D student in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Tech. She was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and did her undergraduate studies at George Mason University where she earned a B.S. in Bioengineering with a concentration in Signals and Systems and a minor in Dance. A fun fact about her is that she has been dancing for over 15 years.

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