August 24, 2020
Director's Column

PNNL's Virtual Summer Interns Make Real Scientific Contributions Despite Pandemic

Originally Published in the Tri-City Herald on August 24, 2020
Eva Ottum

Eva Ottum, an intern at PNNL, recently returned to her lab work to advance biofuels. PNNL created a virtual internship program that allowed her and her fellow interns and post-graduate research associates to contribute to PNNL's research and development and collaborate with PNNL mentors while working from home due to COVID-19 restrictions.

On a summer morning, when many college students are sleeping in or looking for a socially distanced way to spend their day, Eva Ottum and Isidro Garcia log onto their laptops to start their work "at" the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

They are two of this summer's more than 900 virtual interns.

Their research projects — designed and performed differently during the pandemic — illustrate the important contributions made by PNNL's interns and post-graduate students each year.

Their experiences represent PNNL's commitment to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, which this year included quickly revamping our traditional in-person internships to provide meaningful online experiences to attract and prepare the next generation of scientific leaders.

Eva, a Boston College student pursuing biology and education degrees, started her internship in January when she could still do lab work. Her research involved testing a specific fungus that could be used to produce biodiesel.

In the long run, her results could inform how the DNA of oil-producing fungi might be modified to better grow on waste oil — like that from food processing. The goal is to use fungi to efficiently and cost-effectively produce enzymes needed to sustainably convert waste oil to biodiesel.

One of Eva's lab-based projects sought to enhance conditions that trigger fungi to look for DNA in its environment. Another focused on using genetic mutations to study the so-called transcription factors that control what proteins are made.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Student Symposium
Last year, interns and graduate students who spent their summers at PNNL wrapped up their experience by gathering to share their research. With this year's COVID-19 restrictions, PNNL organized a virtual internship program, complete with an interactive, online student symposium. Photo courtesy of Andrea Starr, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Like nearly all PNNL employees, Eva began working remotely, transitioning to new avenues of research with the help of her mentors. She began learning more about how specific transcription factors impact how a fungus uses iron.

She helped write an encyclopedia article about biofuels. And she began using bioinformatics programs to compare the genetic code of different fungi to see how they are related.

While working from home changed Eva's approach to her research, it will allow for deeper understanding and additional insights as work in the lab resumes.

As she describes it, scientists typically collect a lot of data and quickly narrow down the pieces they wish to investigate.

Teleworking has created opportunities for scientists to spend more time examining the data that would otherwise be disregarded, uncovering new relationships along the way.

Isidro, a Chiawana High School graduate, planned to live at home during his PNNL internship, but didn't expect that would mean working from his bedroom in Pasco.

A mechanical engineering student at Washington State University, Isidro's research focuses on improving the accuracy of a radiation detector that could be used to secure venues for large events such as concerts or football games.

The detector uses a neural network — an algorithm designed to recognize patterns — to identify five types of illicit nuclear materials.

Today, the detector is about 70 percent accurate, meaning it could miss materials of concern or create unnecessary alerts.

Isidro spends his days generating data, refining the neural network and analyzing the results to see if better accuracy can be achieved.

The project aligns with Isidro's interest in machine learning and previous research. With this hands-on opportunity to address a real-world problem, he is learning skills that will make him a more well-rounded engineer and more competitive in the job market when he graduates as a Coug.

In this challenging year, PNNL's Office of STEM Education and our 475 mentors have risen to the occasion — relying on online tools to collaborate and creating virtual events for interns to visit labs, network and socialize.

They embody our passion for STEM and commitment to our youth.

Thanks to these dedicated PNNL staff members, Eva, Isidro and our other interns are delivering important scientific results despite the challenges created by COVID-19.

I hope their experiences will increase their resilience, innovation and spirit of collaboration as they become the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.

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

Published: August 24, 2020