Shery Welsh

Dr. Shery Welsh, UAH PhD in Materials Sciences.

Photo courtesy of MDA

University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) alumna, Dr. Shery Welsh, who earned her PhD in Materials Sciences, has been tapped as Director, Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) in Arlington, Virginia.

Dr. Welsh will oversee a staff of 200 scientists, engineers and administrators, not only in the U.S., but also foreign technology offices in London, Tokyo, and Santiago, Chile, while managing a yearly basic research portfolio of nearly half a billion dollars. The goal of this organization is to locate and transition cutting-edge basic research to the Air Force Research Laboratory and other Department of Defense (DoD) elements.

“My focus as Director is to strengthen collaborations globally with universities, government laboratories, industry and other DoD components,” Dr. Welsh explains. “My organization is responsible for the execution of the Department of the Air Force and Space Force basic research programs. We pursue and fund research activities in academia, along with in-house research performed in the Air Force Research Laboratory Technical Directorates.”

Dr. Welsh possesses more than 33 years of experience within the DoD for the United States Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). In her previous role, she served as the Director, Science & Technology, for the MDA where she fostered advanced technologies from across the world, experience that will prove invaluable to her new position.

“We build relationships with other basic research funding organizations and forward-looking government/non-government organizations,” Dr. Welsh says. “Our international divisions provide the Department of the Air Force awareness, engagement, and relationships to identify and support researchers and activities that can lead to scientific breakthroughs. We discover game-changing and innovative ways to support the Department and the warfighter!”

The responsibilities of Dr. Welsh’s new position range far and wide in an organization dedicated to ferreting out and supporting a diverse spectrum of trailblazing projects.

“This is already one of the most thrilling jobs I have ever had,” she says. “I can’t think of anything more fun or critical than basic research.”

These projects include areas such as COVID-19 research on potentially using microwaves to clear environments of the virus so that hospital staff and new patients can work and heal in a contagion-free and safe space, saving lives.

Other areas of focus include developing a new heat shield design to protect weapon system structures, “teaching” an artificial intelligence agent to create effective search-and-rescue robots, and designing a quantum device that facilitates ultrafast tuning of chemical reactions between catalysts and reactants.

“AFOSR has a long-standing history since the 1950s of supporting Nobel Prize Laureates, including the 2019 Chemistry Laureates for the development of lithium-ion batteries,” Dr. Welsh says. “This work establishes the conditions for a wireless and fossil fuel-free society, bringing one of the greatest benefits to humankind—revolutionary!”

The organization’s annual investment in basic research is distributed among roughly 300 academic institutions worldwide, 100 industry-based contracts and more than 250 internal research efforts.

Looking back over her career, Dr. Welsh says that her interest in this field evolved over time, a path that highlights her ability to embrace change and find her way to her dreams.

“I started out taking courses to be an architect, because I loved to draw, and then about a year in I decided that I wanted to be the engineer that built the stuff the architect was drawing,” she says. “Materials Science and Engineering just sounded fun…and it was! I have a true love and passion for materials science, and it only grew with time. Everything is made of or is reliant on materials!”

Dr. Welsh did her coursework for her PhD at UAH. When her colleague and mentor, Dr. Jeffrey Evans, passed away in 2014, she found herself serving as a part-time professor as well.

“It’s such a valuable way to mentor students and pass on my real life work experiences,” she says. “I continue to mentor a lot of my students, assist them with resumes, and even coached a few of them on applying to government civilian positions in the MDA. We hired several of my students into government positions,” she notes with satisfaction.

In a career studded with over a dozen industry recognitions and honors, Dr. Welsh’s accomplishments include published articles in major scientific journals, two Rising Star Awards from the MDA, and Engineer of the Year from the Air Force. She credits UAH with helping to provide the foundation she needed to thrive in challenging positions.

“I’ve always valued the importance of STEM and encouraging our youth to pursue STEM career fields,” she says. “And that is extremely vital today, as our adversaries continue to invest heavily in the sciences and technology development.”

Due to the advent of COVID-19, Dr. Welsh and her family have been delayed in taking up residence in their new city. But, like with many other milestones in her life, she has readily adapted to these unexpected circumstances.

“I love technology!” she says. “Technology has enabled us, as a country and community, to work from our homes and stay connected to our family and friends. And more importantly, videoconferencing and collaborative platforms have led to a very successful introduction to my organization from right here in Alabama.”

She encourages others to be creative when faced with obstacles and takes a two-pronged approach to self-improvement and advancement, a strategy that has paid benefits throughout her educational and professional career.

“One, leaning forward and doing everything you can to grab every opportunity out there, and two, to be yourself; continue to be innovative and creative, even if those around you look at you like you’re a weirdo,” Dr. Welsh says with a smile. “That’s what science and technology is all about; not just thinking outside the box but thinking ‘there is no box!'"