Michigan Tech Researchers Find Fresh Ways to Connect in the Nation’s Capital

Nighttime capture of the Washington Monument from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as Michigan Tech research faculty and staff visit the nation's capital.
Nighttime capture of the Washington Monument from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as Michigan Tech research faculty and staff visit the nation's capital.
A nighttime capture of the Washington Monument from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — one of the many opportunities research faculty and staff experiences on the annual expedition to Washington, D.C. (All images courtesy Michigan Tech Research Development staff)

Michigan Tech research faculty and staff traveled to Washington, D.C., resuming the annual trip for the first time since the pandemic curbed travel. 

The trip, offered to all colleges and units across campus under the Vice President for Research Office (VPR), took place May 10-12. Group activities were coordinated by the Research Development team, which includes Sarah Atkinson, Pete Larsen, Jake Manchester and me, along with Natasha Chopp from VPR. The 32 participating faculty were encouraged to extend their trip beyond the three-day itinerary in order to meet with collaborators and individually with program officers at federal agencies and institutions. 

Pre-trip preparation opportunities included writing white papers, attending a practice-your-pitch session and meeting virtually with the head of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Office of Integrative Activities (OIA), Alicia Knoedler. 

Researchers Get Details from NSF

Knoedler and two other NSF OIA staff members — program directors Kim Littlefield and Dina Stroud — arranged for Michigan Tech and University of the District of Columbia (UDC) faculty to meet program officers, learn more about program priorities and get insights on what it takes to write a fundable proposal.

“The group sessions at NSF offer great high-level information,” said Vinh Nguyen, assistant professor in Tech’s mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics department. “It’s also important to schedule individual program officer meetings to get more on-the-ground advice for a successful proposal.”

An NSF program director talks to Michigan Tech researchers during their Washington DC visit.
Alicia Knoedler, head of NSF’s Office of Integrative Activities, leads introductions at the NSF headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. 

To wrap the first day, faculty and staff traveled from NSF’s campus in Alexandria, Virginia, to the UDC campus in the Van Ness neighborhood of Washington, DC. Researchers and staff from both institutions had the opportunity to engage over light refreshments. The reception was one of the first steps toward meaningful collaborations as part of an established memorandum of understanding between the two institutions.

Federal Science Partners Offer Impactful Guidance

Federal Science Partners (FSP), Michigan Tech’s Washington, D.C., consulting agency, is an integral partner in policy, Capitol Hill activity, programmatic requests and visibility in the offices of elected officials. FSP also helps arrange for speakers from federal funding and advocacy agencies during Michigan Tech’s annual D.C. trip. This year, FSP worked with research development staff to provide a full day of insider knowledge for visiting researchers. The agenda included speakers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E); National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST); American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); Fulbright Scholar Program; National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB); and the U.S. departments of Agriculture (USDA), Energy (DOE) and Transportation (DOT). Speakers focused on broad strategies that help researchers successfully work with their agencies, find avenues of support for students and build faculty-level fellowships into careers.

A group of researchers and research staff at SURA in Washington, D.C. during their annual expedition.

Michigan Tech faculty and staff engaged with federal agency representatives in a downtown D.C. conference rented from SURA, a nonprofit agency which forwards collaborative scientific research.


The Value of Getting to Know Each Other 

One of the biggest benefits of the D.C. trip — a plus that is mentioned again and again in faculty feedback — is the opportunity to connect with Michigan Tech colleagues. A trip across the country has the potential to bring us together in ways that a coffee break on campus cannot. It’s about more than spending hours together in group meetings: there are the moments sitting next to each other on the plane, chatting over unfamiliar cuisine at lunch and walking around the nation’s capital with time to propose, discuss and digest new ideas.

Research faculty and staff enjoy a beverage together on the DC trip
Jiehong Guo and Sarah Atkinson share smiles and conversation.

“It was nice to connect with faculty in a nontraditional way,” said Atkinson. “Instead of grabbing coffee in the campus library, we were able to walk together, chat and treat ourselves to the urban treat of boba tea — and try local fare. When you have a sense of belonging with colleagues it creates an environment for better collaborations, breaking down artificial walls and inviting acceptance. Experiences outside our familiar environment reveal that we are all human. It’s a productive break that provides stress relief and supports researchers in a positive way. Plus, it’s fun!” Outside-of-research activities included visits to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Portrait Gallery. We like to encourage faculty to spend time synthesizing the technical and relational content of the trip with the creative sides of our brains.

Research faculty and staff take in Renwick art during a visit to Washingnton DC
Michigan Tech colleagues take a break under the permanent sculpture exhibit by Janet Echelman, titled "1.8 Renwick," at the Renwick Gallery.


"Einstein is quoted as saying, ‘Play is the highest form of research.’ I think it’s a great reminder that we need to give ourselves space to think big and connect a lot of specific information together in a broad way. Taking time to play and explore can help refresh our minds leading to more productive work and better ideas."Jessica Brassard, director of research development and communication, Michigan Tech Research Development


Research development staff set up excursions to a local landmark as part of the annual trip. This year we were able to arrange a White House tour through U.S. Representative Jack Bergman’s office

“The opportunity to visit the White House together was a special treat,” said Manchester. “The self-guided tour allowed us to move at our own pace through the open areas, beginning with the East Wing Colonnade and Garden Room, with views of the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, and finishing in the grand Entrance Hall and iconic North Portico. In between, we saw many other fascinating spaces, including the Library, palatial-feeling Green, Blue, and Red rooms, and even the State Dining Room with its massive table. Along the way, mini-exhibits highlighted historical events related to the spaces and the walls were decorated with portraits of past presidents and first ladies. It was a great way to connect with each other as we learned together about this unique part of American history that continues to be an important part of our nation’s government.”

Researchers take a last photo on the White House portico after their tour as security looks on.

The Michigan Tech tour group quickly poses for a picture after being shooed out of the White House by security at the end of the tour. 

The Research Development team is grateful to everyone who came on the trip, finding the value in addressing individual goals and contributing value to the entire group’s experience. We also appreciate the cooperation of department chairs and college deans — many faculty would not be able to attend without this vital support.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.