Doctoral candidate Samantha Knoth has fought through adversity and earned a prestigious Department of Defense scholarship.
As anyone who has ever made the trek can testify, it can be a long, strange trip to a doctoral degree, and the journey can be even more challenging to make with stretches of time in a wheelchair.
Yet that is precisely the point of view Samantha Knoth thought she might have all those years ago when her worldview quite literally was shaken to its foundation, and the vibrations were enough to shift her focus from a love of dance to a passion for science.
Knoth is pursuing her doctorate at Texas Tech University's Graduate School, studying energetics as a mechanical engineering student under the tutelage of advisers Michelle Pantoya and Adelia Aquino in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering.
Impressive as all of that might be, it remains only the here and now. Knoth's origin story of how and why she arrived at Texas Tech is equally compelling.
“I was dancing when I got hurt, and I twisted my ankle,” she says, purposely dislodging a still-painful memory. “I was 13 years old at the time of the injury. Part of it was genetics, but it was accelerated by the fact that I was a competitive dancer, having danced multiple hours virtually every day and traveling the country for conventions and competitions. The injury put me in a wheelchair and competitive dancing was no longer feasible. Just being able to walk again would be considered a big success.”
“That was very hard for me.”
It is Good Friday and Knoth has just ordered a mid-morning cup of coffee at one of the many popular locales near the Texas Tech campus. As she takes her place at the table, a sense of purpose seems to accompany her, one that won't be drowned out by the consistent clatter, background noise and conversational buzz throughout the bustling establishment.
The primary topic of conversation is the prestigious Department of Defense Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (DoD SMART) scholarship she was awarded. The scholarship is a legitimate big deal. Recipients will become civilian employees with the DoD upon graduation, so great things await Knoth on the other side of this educational horizon.
At this moment, there is a deliberate detour in the dialogue as Knoth recalls scary bygone days that threatened who she was. She remembers that time as one in which she was also spurred to action, prodding herself to learn all she could about her medical situation and possible options.
“I worked with my doctor, and we chose what was cutting-edge research at that time,” she said, “We did an experimental surgery that went really well. Eventually, I had surgery on both of my ankles, but there were complications with my left ankle. In the past year, I've had two more surgeries for a total of seven in the past 10 to 15 years.”
Knoth was referred to the Johns Hopkins Peripheral Nerve Surgery Center and her medical team was able to remove two neuromas and debris from her left ankle that prevented her from flexing her foot. A neuroma is a benign tumor of nerve tissue often associated with pain or specific types of various other symptoms.
“They worked on it last summer, and I'm doing great, walking again,” she said. “I'm feeling really good and excited to get back to research because I spent the entire fall semester in a wheelchair. I actively try to maintain my ability to walk, but from time to time I have to have medical intervention to maintain that ability. I am on fire about science, especially experimental research, and the excitement of getting back into the laboratory helped me through the initial recovery.”
As it turns out, science wasn't the only thing in play. Knoth's faith was a source of strength throughout this episode.
“I grew up Catholic, but I didn't feel like I had a personal relationship with God,” she said. “That changed after my injury. I was in a wheelchair and on home instruction. I was in a situation where no one my age could really understand. My parents were helping me, but they had never been in a wheelchair. I was at a point where I felt like no one knew what I was going through. In that loneliness, I reached out to God for comfort. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and savior and was confirmed in the Catholic Church as a sophomore in high school.
“My faith is something that keeps me strong. I know whenever times are hard, that I will get through it because of him. God has never let me down and he never will.”
That strength has been a consistent presence in Knoth's life, particularly throughout her educational journey. She is a native of Beavercreek, Ohio, and earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and a master's degree in bioengineering concurrently in four years from the University of Dayton, finishing in 2019.
“I fell in love with science because it doesn't only describe natural phenomena, but you can use science to improve peoples' lives, and I wanted to that,” she said.
She was accepted there for two programs that allow high school students meeting certain academic criteria to take courses with tuition fully covered. As a result, she began taking classes at Dayton in the summer prior to her senior year in high school. Upon graduation, she had already accumulated significant credits from the college.
Because of the work she had already completed, she was able to take upper-level science and engineering courses upon formally enrolling at Dayton. Thanks to an innovative program there called Bachelor's Plus Master's (BPM), she was able to enroll in graduate level courses during her sophomore year.
“I took full advantage of the program,” she said. “Reading through the program guidelines, I learned I could double-count two courses and continue to take graduate courses only toward my master's degree and not be charged tuition beyond my undergraduate tuition until the bachelor's was awarded as long as I took no more than 18 credit hours per semester.”
Combining meticulous planning, a merit scholarship, support from her parents and working four jobs during her college years, Knoth graduated from Dayton debt-free with both degrees in four years.
She conducted her master's research starting in 2018 at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Materials and Manufacturing Directorate at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton and then accepted a research engineer contractor position with the AFRL Munitions Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. She has developed a patent-pending curing technology to support the advancement of additive manufacturing energetic materials.
It was through her position with the Munitions Directorate that she originally crossed paths with Pantoya, the J.W. Wright Regents Chair in Mechanical Engineering and professor at Texas Tech. They met at a program review when Pantoya visited Florida.
“Sammy sent me an email and arranged to meet with me via Zoom,” Pantoya recalled. “She had been working at AFRL and our group has collaborations with people there. She knew people we work with, and they recommended that she contact me to inquire about graduate school.”
Knoth soon found out Pantoya would be making a trip to Florida, and her boss arranged a dinner during the visit to formally introduce them.
“The rest was history,” Knoth said. “Dr. Pantoya is special. I had heard great things about her from people who worked with her in the past in energetics. She really stood out to me. She is already established in her career, so her focus is on preparing students to be successful.”
Her decision solidified once Knoth heard from another former student of Pantoya's who had gone on to her own successes.
“She was an alumnus who had been mentored by Dr. Pantoya, and she gave her a glowing review,” Knoth said. “I was hungry for that same kind of challenge that would result in significant growth. I knew then that I wanted to be mentored by Dr. Pantoya. I've never heard a bad thing about her. She has a positive attitude, and even if things go bad in the lab, she has constructive criticism on how to improve moving forward.
“I was looking at three or four schools and visited them, but Texas Tech stood out. I was inspired by Dr. Pantoya's work and her emphasis on communication and softer skills, but that wasn't the only thing. The grad school is focused on creating events and professional development. The library has lots of resources. The culture here stood out.”
Knoth found the gravitational pull of Pantoya's Combustion Lab and Texas Tech's resources a perfect fit for her research plans. She received the AT&T Chancellor Fellowship as a recruitment incentive. The fellowship made it possible for her to pursue her doctorate, and she enrolled in the doctoral program in the fall of 2021.
Ironically, Knoth has only the thinnest of previous connections to West Texas. A grandfather had grown up in Brownfield, some 45 miles southwest of Lubbock, and briefly attended Texas Tech.
Knoth has been a strong addition to Texas Tech. The DoD scholarship certainly enhances her bona fides. She is now halfway through the demands of the doctoral program and has the benefit of knowing what's on the other side of its completion in terms of a career as a government researcher.
“She is in a unique place within our program,” Pantoya said. “She completed nearly all the course requirements and has completed the qualifying exam successfully. She is only just beginning to do research toward her dissertation. Most students like to work on research continuously throughout their degree, but she managed her requirements a little differently.”
As Knoth explains her research field in its simplest terms, energetic materials release a lot of energy in an exceptionally short amount of time with the research emphasis being on quantifying the power of the reaction (how much energy is released per a given time). Her research focus during the next two years will be looking computationally at the behavior of chemical compounds and reactions while also working experimentally to show proof of concept for a multimode (one that burns fast and slow) propellant.
“I look at the chemistry involved and try to see how I can make the interactions better,” she said in explaining her approach to materials research. “I also use design of experiments methodology to tune process parameters to achieve a desired materials product. I develop new energetic formulations with the hopes of improving the processability of material and performance.”
The DoD SMART scholarship is a relatively uncommon occurrence at Texas Tech, where fewer than a dozen have been awarded since the program's inception in 2006.
“It's pretty rare and definitely an honor to be a recipient,” she said. “Scholars are selected from bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. students from across 21 different disciplines that are all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) based. You write an essay about your background and your research interest. My understanding is that your essay is reviewed by a panel of experts who help determine semifinalists.
“Once named a semifinalist, DoD sponsoring facilities can see your information and contact you for an interview. Sponsoring facilities rank applicants forming a selection list. Program funds are distributed to sponsoring facilities based on research priorities, and SMART awards are given to applicants on the selection list that received funding. It's very exciting.”
For Knoth, a view that not long ago might have been hazy suddenly is much clearer.
“I'm really excited to see all that she will accomplish on the research front – she's planning on a large numerical/computational project related to surface chemistry, followed by some potential experiments,” Pantoya said. “Her topical area of focus has good breadth – a good diversity of skill sets that will benefit her in the future.”
Skills that include diligence, intelligence, persistence – and more than a little bit of faith.