ERDC’s Wittrock named CERL Research Assistant of the Year

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center
Published Jan. 8, 2024
Joseph Wittrock was awarded the Research Assistant of the Year at CERL’s Luncheon and Award Ceremony in Champaign, Illinois on Dec. 7, 2023.

Joseph Wittrock was awarded the Research Assistant of the Year at CERL’s Luncheon and Award Ceremony in Champaign, Illinois on Dec. 7, 2023.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.— The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) named Joseph Wittrock the lab’s 2023 Research Assistant of the Year. Wittrock brought exceptional dedication and creativity to the Sustainment Management System Technical Center of Expertise (SMS-TCX), working diligently towards the CERL mission.

“I am honored and excited to be offered this award,” Wittrock said while receiving this year’s award. “It is a monumental step in my career.”

The Research Assistant of the Year Award recognizes the outstanding contributions of students working in support of the CERL mission. Wittrock is a student in the mathematics program at Illinois State University, and at CERL, he is a critical member of the data analytics group on the SMS-TCX Team. He joined CERL through an internship in the summer of 2023, hitting the ground running as a student researcher. 

“Joseph was a very quick study in grasping the past research and current products of the SMS-TCX within the first few weeks, which enabled him to have a very productive summer, helping to kick off a key new area of research in facility investment optimization,” Matthew Walters, SMS-TCX chief, said on Joseph’s start at CERL.

Once Wittrock settled into his role at CERL, he proved to be a key player on the SMS-TCX team. He provided vital contributions on an Air Force base sensor data project, which explores the use of building automation sensor data to provide real-time equipment diagnostics and metrics that feed BUILDER SMS. BUILDER is used by the Department of Defense to manage more than 200,000 buildings.

“I love that my work with the SMS team is striving to benefit people all over the world,” Wittrock said. “Sustainment research is really rewarding because it helps everyone use their resources most efficiently.”

Wittrock also developed an innovative prototype application for simulating and optimizing sustainment, restoration and modernization investment decisions for a portfolio of buildings using real BUILDER data. He developed a simulation-style game called “Inspector Trail” based on the 1980s computer game “Oregon Trail,” and he used artificial intelligence (AI) and reinforcement learning to train an AI agent to learn how to “play” the game, unlocking key insights about the most effective way to invest in our facilities.

“It was really cool to use real-world data to create models,” Wittrock said. “For instance, the simulation that is the backbone of “Inspector Trail” uses actual building and component data from the BUILDER database. The project wouldn’t be possible without the plethora of historical data from CERL’s BUILDER application.”

“Joseph was able to quickly understand the challenge he was working on and the importance to the USACE mission,” said Dr. Andrew Nelson, CERL’s director. “He brought a fresh and creative perspective on how to approach that through gamification and directly applying what he was learning to a real-world issue.”

Wittrock wrapped up his summer semester by presenting his innovative research on the main stage at the National Academies of Science Auditorium during the SMS Summit in Washington, D.C.

“Presenting my research at the SMS Summit in the National Academies was the capstone of my summer!” Wittrock said. “The venue was breathtaking, and it was great to meet so many end users of the SMS product.”

After returning to school for the fall 2023 semester, Wittrock continues to work part time for the SMS team, advancing his research and greatly contributing to the efforts of the SMS program. Wittrock said he is interested in exploring more ways to automate inspections, and there are several upcoming projects at CERL he is looking forward to.

“Receiving this award motivates me to continue developing my skills and exploring more applications of emerging technologies.” Wittrock said.

Wittrock is in his fourth year of a five-year MS/BS mathematics program at ISU. He hopes to continue working with the SMS-TCX team at CERL after graduation.

Through CERL’s partnership with ISU, students like Wittrock can join real-world scenarios and expand their capabilities beyond a classroom.

“We’re very excited about this partnership with ISU because we can provide real-world career experience with a global impact right here in Central Illinois,” said Nelson. “It’s critically important to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Army to grow future thinkers and leaders in the STEM fields, and this partnership with ISU helps us do exactly that.”

“We are so proud to hear about Joseph’s award,” said Craig C. McLauchlan, ISU’s Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies. “Stories like his are the reason we signed the Education Partnership Agreement (EPA) in early 2023.  Our students, staff and faculty do amazing work, and the EPA makes it easier for us to collaborate and work together with CERL.”

Outside Wittrock’s role at CERL, he is a member of the ISU Game Development Club and the Association of Computing Machinery. He also won a weeklong game-making competition hosted by ISU’s Game Development Club. In his spare time, Wittrock builds and flies drones and builds computers. He performs research in graph theory and reinforcement learning, presenting at the 32nd Cumberland Conference on Graph Theory and Combinatorics and the Spring 2023 ISU Undergraduate symposium.

Wittrock was awarded the Research Assistant of the Year at CERL’s Luncheon and Award Ceremony in Champaign, Illinois on Dec. 7, 2023. He is expected to graduate from ISU in spring 2025.