Dr. Mark M. Derriso
PhD Electrical Engineering, 2013
Dr. Mark M. Derriso earned his PhD in Electrical Engineering from AFIT in 2013. The path to Derriso’s terminal degree was long and hard – he earned his degrees part-time taking nearly 7 years to complete a bachelor’s degree. “It was a long road for me to get here, but I wouldn’t trade it.”
In 1988 Derriso earned a two-year degree in electronics engineering technology from Kentucky State University. His first job out of school was as a lab technician in AFIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics department. The years he worked as a technician were invaluable to his career. It allowed him to work with students and faculty who excelled at the theoretical issues but needed his hands-on expertise. “It was one of the best experiences I have had in my career because I was able to help a lot of students with their research projects. It also gave me the exposure to what is required to complete a master’s thesis or a PhD dissertation. ”
During this time, Derriso was going to school part-time at Wright State University to earn his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. The classes that he took towards his degree helped to get him classified as an engineer in the Structures Division at AFRL when he was downsized from AFIT. After a few years off, Derriso went to the University of Dayton and earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering. “If I had not built the foundation as a technician at AFIT, I’m not sure I could have made it through the program.” Derriso was able to connect the concepts he learned as a technician to the theory he learned as a student to paint a complete picture.
His next assignment was working in the area of structural health monitoring (SHM). SHM is a technology that autonomously provides a real-time assessment of the condition or health of an aircraft structure. During his time running these programs he learned that “in order to really know an area you have to be able to do it yourself. Although you have a lot of resources to help, in order to be the honest broker that the AF requires, you have to know the material yourself.” That is when he decided to go back to get his PhD. “I couldn’t depend on anyone else to tell me what the area needed because they had other interests, like for their company or university. I wanted the knowledge for myself to make smart decisions. For me AFIT was the ideal place to come. ”
Derriso’s doctoral research focused on how to improve
autonomous systems for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of AF operations. The research was directly connected to his work at AFRL where he managed programs on state awareness and real-time response. The question being addressed was how to take a machine that collects data from the environment and analyze it for making autonomous, real time decisions on what to do next. For example, incorporating algorithms into the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) operations can make them more autonomous and less man-power intensive.
The fundamental problems Derriso was addressing at work and school was also personal because his daughter was diagnosed with Type-1 Diabetes at 12 years old. Her insulin dependency required that she endure multiple shots of insulin during the day to maintain a normal blood sugar level. He knew there had to be a better way to maintain her routine so that she could have a healthy life. “The RPA and diabetic insulin pumps have the same issue – they are not 'intelligent' enough to take into account what the person might do next and automatically make adjustments. If something unexpected happens, the systems are not smart enough to know what changes to make. The concepts are the same with each of those applications. It was a motivation for me. I think the research we have done as part of my dissertation could be the start to help solve these problems.”
When Derriso earned his associate’s degree, he was the first person in his family to earn a college degree, now he is the first in his family to earn a PhD. Like many, his motivation to go to college was athletics. But, his priorities changed after fracturing his ribs during a homecoming football game. When his coach asked if he was going to be ready to go next week, it was an epiphany for Derriso. “I don’t think he cared about me as a person or even a student; he cared about me as an athlete. I decided I didn’t want to do it with my body anymore. I wanted to do it with my intellect.” Derriso believes there is a correlation between football and life, stating, “How resilient you are to being knocked down and how quickly you get back up will determine how successful you will be in football and life.” He shares that message with young men today as a junior high school football coach. Derriso tells his players not to focus on going to college to play football, but to get an education. “The key is the education and it has opened up so many doors for me. It’s not where you are from or where you grew up. It’s about self-determination, motivation, and endurance to see it through. I want kids to hear that they can do it.”
Derriso is currently the Technical Advisor for the Warfighter Interface Division in the 711th Human Performance Wing at AFRL where he leads the core technical area of decision making for Air, Space, and Cyber domains. He is able to maintain a strong connection with AFIT through funding research for current students and working on joint research projects with faculty. “AFIT was a great experience for me. The most important part is the research, making sure it is unique, and that you are making a contribution to the field.”