Engineering alum named U.S. Department of Defense SMART Scholar

June 4, 2024
Photo of UNT alum James Jenkins


Finding a major wasn’t clear cut for recent University of North Texas alum James Jenkins (’24). He tried out three before he finally found the right fit in electrical engineering.

Everything came into focus for him while participating in a robotics competition as part of the UNT student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“This competition was the first real engineering experience that I had where I had to come up with a design with my team and we competed with it,” says Jenkins, who ended up volunteering on the executive board for UNT’s IEEE chapter.

Still, the journey hasn’t been easy, with challenges to master the math, understand engineering concepts and learn how to apply them.

“I had to learn how to learn, and that engineering isn’t necessarily about how many successes you have, but rather how many failures you have and how much you persevere,” Jenkins says. “I believe in myself more because of the trials I went through and the support of the faculty here.”

Jenkins is now reaping the rewards of his hard work by earning a scholarship-for-service award from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) program.

The SMART Scholarship is focused on building future U.S. leaders in STEM fields and offers recipients full tuition, annual stipends, internships and guaranteed employment with the DOD after graduation.

“This is a well-deserved award and a historic achievement, as James is the first known student in our department’s history to earn the prestigious honor,” says Xinrong Li, associate professor of electrical engineering.

This scholarship has been another confirmation that I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m really thankful for all of the experiences I’ve had here at UNT and my family’s support.
James Jenkins

In Li’s Embedded Sensing and Processing Systems Lab, Jenkins researched the protocols that determine how computers communicate with each other.

“If one computer is operating on protocol A and another computer on protocol B, then it would be like two humans speaking two different languages that the other didn’t understand,” Jenkins says.

His research will contribute to more efficient communication between computers, especially those that power autonomous robots or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The work is part of a project funded by the U.S. Army Research Lab to further the foundational understanding of cognitive distributed sensing, a framework for gathering, processing and analyzing data from multiple sensors in real time.

“A goal of this research is to develop more efficient directional communication capability in small devices, which is crucial in high mobility environments such as public safety, emergency response and many other areas,” Li says. “Our work will help multiple agents like robots or UAVs to coordinate more seamlessly together and make decisions as one.”

With the SMART scholarship, Jenkins plans to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering at Howard University in Washington, D.C. During the summers, he’ll also work at the Air Force Research Lab Sensors Directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Greene County, Ohio.

“It’s really been a dream come true,” Jenkins says. “This scholarship has been another confirmation that I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m really thankful for all of the experiences I’ve had here at UNT and my family’s support.”