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Today's interns are tomorrow's scientists

Published in the Tri-City Herald July 12, 2015, authored by Lab Director Steven Ashby

Today's interns are tomorrow's scientists

July 12, 2015
Source: Tri-City Herald, reposted with permission from Tri-City Herald

Highlights


School's out, which means a new group of interns is settling into summer research assignments with mentors at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. Last year, about 1,200 students and teachers immersed themselves in laboratory research experiences through programs offered to high school, undergraduate and graduate students, as well hands-on opportunities for post-doctoral fellows and educators.


Steve Ashby Courtesy PNNL

BY STEVEN ASHBY, DIRECTOR
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


School's out, which means a new group of interns is settling into summer research assignments with mentors at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. Last year, about 1,200 students and teachers immersed themselves in laboratory research experiences through programs offered to high school, undergraduate and graduate students, as well hands-on opportunities for post-doctoral fellows and educators.

Programs such as these reflect PNNL's commitment to inspire and prepare the next generation. Our ability to address the most challenging problems in science, energy, the environment and national security depends upon our ability to interest our youth in careers in science and engineering. DOE and Battelle, which manages PNNL, believe in the value of science and engineering education. While it is important to educate our citizens generally, it also prepares future employees who will make exciting new discoveries and inventions, as well as strengthen America's ability to compete globally.

PNNL offers work-based learning experiences, each tailored to the educational level of the participant and each offering an opportunity to work on real-world problems under the guidance of a laboratory mentor. Our interns come from across the country and around the world — as well as from the local community and the Northwest. More than 20 percent of our almost 800 interns, research associates and visiting faculty and students are from schools within 150 miles of the Tri-Cities. Fifteen of them attend Tri-City high schools and 55 of them are from Washington State University Tri-Cities and Columbia Basin College in Pasco.

Hanford High School student Arielle Eaton took her learning beyond the classroom during a recent internship that focused on understanding how the crystal structure of a metal used in nuclear reactors changes over time and when exposed to heat. Working with her mentor, Arielle used a technique called atom probe tomography to study the correlation between the composition of a particular steel and its mechanical properties. Her project could increase the lifetime of reactors because it shed light on what causes embrittlement that leads to fractures and corrosion.

Sean Happenny from the University of Washington visited this spring under the auspices of DOE's Office of Science-sponsored Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship, or SULI, program and worked on a project to support modernization of the nation's electricity grid. He wrote software to simplify the set up of the virtual networks used for communication among smart grid devices so researchers could more easily explore real-world network conditions. This allows researchers to test devices before they are deployed as part of our effort to build a more secure and reliable grid.

Robert Kruck, another SULI intern from Rutgers University, explored the potential of using algae to produce chemicals and biofuels — a clean alternative to conventional petroleum-based products. He helped develop a test to understand the suitability of certain microalgae for conversion into liquid transportation fuels. His project screened for microalgae that are more tolerant to cold temperatures, which can limit photosynthesis and thereby reduce production rates.

One of PNNL's Linus Pauling distinguished post-doctoral fellows, Priyanka Bhattacharya, is working to improve rechargeable lithium ion batteries, such as those used in cellphones and laptop computers. She has devised a novel approach to use branchlike molecules for next-generation energy storage and conversion applications. By understanding different molecular architectures and the relationship between their structure and function, she is gaining insights into the development of advanced functional materials for these applications.

Arielle, Sean, Robert and Priyanka are just four of the amazing young people who have spent time working at PNNL. Internships are critical to our efforts to train our future work force — and are a demonstration of our commitment to America's continued scientific and engineering preeminence.

Our internship programs provide experiences that convince youth to pursue careers in science and engineering, including some who will choose to work at a DOE national laboratory. I know this because I spent three summers as an intern at two national laboratories — Sandia and Los Alamos.

Those opportunities helped shape me as a computational scientist by providing unique experiences that expanded my horizons and exposed me to the wonder of the DOE lab system. If it were not for these internships, I doubt I would have started my career at a national laboratory, and I would likely be doing something very different today.

I wish the interns who are joining us this summer the best, and I thank them for their contributions to our research efforts. And who knows, perhaps one of them will be a future lab director.

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.

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