Two years ago, Jeff Helstad decided he'd had enough, put all his excuses not to serve his country aside and joined the National Guard.
"It bothered me that so few men were joining in 2006-2007," Helstad says. "The war was unpopular and we were told by the 'elite' news media that we had already lost. The only thing worse than being in a war, is losing a war. I always had an excuse for not serving. 'I'm busy and too old' was one. But there was no way I could look my children in the eye and honestly tell them I did everything I could to preserve their liberty."
Helstad – a senior in UNT's materials science program, and father of 4 – expects to be deployed shortly after his May 2010 graduation.
Senior Jeff Helstad and a graduate student work with equipment that heats weapons materials to precise temperatures allowing researchers to mimic the effect of desert heat.
It turns out that the experience Helstad has gotten during his 2 years of guard service has proven invaluable to him in the materials science lab. That's where he and other researchers are working with metals and ceramics to find solutions to common desert battlefield problems – namely, the fact that weapons and equipment tend to malfunction when baking in the desert heat.
Because heat and wear cause the material of gun barrels to break down and jam, scientists who develop improved weaponry materials that better withstand heat and usage, will also save lives.
Helstad has seen first-hand in the field how guns jam and other materials fail.
When he isn't working in the UNT lab, Helstad's side project is studying body armor, specifically examining the thermal properties of the metal used. He's looking for ways to make armor better withstand ballistic weapons.
The right material
Helstad says it's not a lack of ideas that blocks scientists and engineers from moving forward, but a lack of adequate materials.
"Great ideas are a dime a dozen, making them a reality is the real challenge," Helstad says. "Most engineers and scientists end up dealing with materials issues at some point because it is the lack of sufficient materials in design that hold back great ideas. I believe the Materials Science field is the new Wild West of engineering, and shows more potential for development than any other field."
Helstad's great ideas are paying off. He earned a Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship, awarded by the Department of Defense's National Defense Education Program. The award carries a $25,000, 2-year stipend and completely pays for his tuition. It also provides him with a job upon his return from National Guard service -- at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, one of the country's premier research laboratories.
Helstad credits his UNT professors for helping him succeed.
"The faculty members in UNT's Materials Science department are world class educators," he says. "They are all approachable and willing to help students. The professors that have been key to my development are Tom Scharf, Srinivasan Srivilliputhur (Srini), Raj Banerjee, and Rick Reidy. Tom and Srini helped and encouraged me to pursue the SMART scholarship and are willing to help me at the drop of a hat."
Helstad already has a plan for his future.
"My goal is to start and grow my own company," he says. "That's the American Dream. Then I'll sell it and become a farmer. That' s my dream."
So how does he balance his roles as father, student, researcher, soldier and future entrepreneur?
"I don't, my wife does," he says of his wife, Jana Helstad. "If it weren't for her hard work and understanding, none of this would be possible. She's a good woman and I'm a lucky man."