Interns at National Labs Do Real Science

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15 minutes or fewer


Engineering and Tech

Brookhaven National Laboratory summer interns take a break from the lab to win a staff-intern softball tournament.
Brookhaven National Laboratory summer interns take a break from the lab to win a staff-intern softball tournament. BNL – Office of Education Programs

College interns at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) on Long Island, New York, do far more than wash petri dishes or push papers.

For example, past interns have investigated the effects of super-hydrophobic surfaces on ice formation; used graphene to improve solar cell efficiency; and engineered superconducting magnet coils, to name a few projects.

“We don’t want students to just go out and do menial kinds of activities,” says Melvyn Morris, the coordinator of the lab’s internship program. “We will look at the project to be sure that [it] is something the student can sink their teeth into.”

Brookhaven National Laboratory is one of many national laboratories, technology centers, and facilities run by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that offer internships to undergraduates through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program.

Perhaps most importantly, SULI interns work directly with full-time researchers. Relationships like these are critical. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of STEM majors fail to graduate with a STEM degree—despite the fact that more graduating high school seniors in the United States are showing an interest in studying fields in STEM (see My College Options, 2012). The pipeline to careers in STEM fields is particularly “leaky” for women and minorities (see NCES 2013).

Like SULI, other programs are trying to reverse this trend, including US2020, the National Mentoring Partnership (MENTOR), and Million Women Mentors by matching high school students or undergraduate STEM majors—particularly women and minorities—with mentors in the sciences.

What stood out from my conversation with Morris is how deliberately every stage of Brookhaven’s internships are designed to help students get the most out of their experience.

At BNL, mentorship is a privilege, not an obligation. To be eligible for mentorship, lab staff must be nominated by colleagues and submit an application explaining the project that they have planned for their intern. Accepted mentors participate in phone interviews with intern candidates and must complete an online mentorship training program.

The program is highly competitive. For its 10-week summer session in 2014, the DOE Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists received more than 3,000 SULI applications (the DOE has a common application form). Of these, 488 were in competition for just over 100 positions available at BNL. Applicants are sorted into a large database based on their interests, and approved research mentors then sift through the applications to identify and interview students that they would like to host for the summer.

When students arrive at BNL, they go through a mandatory safety training and orientation, meet their mentors, and enjoy a huge luncheon with all mentors and interns before diving into their summer research on everything from biomaterials to high-energy physics.

The initiation process can seem daunting. “The students come in, and they’re a little intimidated,” says Morris. “They’re not sure about their own capabilities—they’re working with world-class scientists.”

But the feeling doesn’t last. “You can see very quickly, as they are getting more responsibility, that they are feeling more confident in what they do,” says Morris, who keeps close tabs on interns. “Every student has to turn in a weekly written report. They do it online, and I read them,” he says. “That’s just to give me a sense of how they’re doing, what their progress is like.” The weekly reports also help to clear up any conflicts between students and their mentors.

While students work hard collaborating as full-time members of their new research group, there are still plenty of opportunities to have fun. Morris describes the culture of the program as “a home away from home.” Over the course of the summer, BNL takes on a college campus feel, offering events including a talent show and staff-student softball game, trips to New York City, and concerts to offset weeks spent at the lab bench.

About 60 percent of interns live in on-site housing provided by the lab, while the rest commute or receive help to make their own living arrangements. They also earn a $5,000 stipend ($500/week) and round-trip airfare to the laboratory. Interns are responsible for their own meals and can choose between the campus cafeteria and cooking on their own in the dorms. The whole package makes the program accessible to students regardless of their location and financial background.

Interns seem to really enjoy working closely with career scientists. “They have some of the most brilliant minds here at the laboratory,” said Nicholas Tsirakis, an undergraduate from Binghamton University who worked on electromagnet coil engineering, in a video interview with BNL’s Office of Educational Programs. “Just seeing what they’re doing and seeing how they think kind of helped me along the way with doing my project.”

Michelle Chen, and undergraduate from Dartmouth College, also found the internship beneficial. “I get to meet a lot of different people that aren’t just undergrads, but also post-docs, grad students, and staff scientists,” Chen, who studied graphene for the summer, told BNL’s Office of Educational Programs. “I feel like I’ve been getting a very well rounded experience.”

Ready to be totally impressed? Listen to Michelle and Nicholas describe their summer research in the videos below, courtesy of Brookhaven’s Office of Educational Programs. For more information about the program, and to apply, click here.

Michelle Chen, Dartmouth College

Nicholas Tsirakis, Binghamton University

Related Links:

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program is now accepting applications for the summer season (due January 9, 2015) apply here:


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About Ariel Zych

Ariel Zych is Science Friday’s director of audience. She is a former teacher and scientist who spends her free time making food, watching arthropods, and being outside.

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