Nearly 100 next-gen scientists intern with biologists, environmental scientists at ORNL

BYLINE: Stephanie Seay and Mimi McHale

Newswise — Nearly 100 interns were introduced to Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s biological and environmental research over the summer of 2023 as mentors and students were eager to share knowledge and skills to address the nation’s energy and environmental challenges.

“We were very excited to host so many students in person this summer,” said Paul Langan, associate laboratory director for ORNL’s Biological and Environmental Systems Science Directorate, or BESSD. “These young scientists bring fresh perspective to our missions and energize our workplace and science culture. In turn, they get to experience working with our outstanding research and technical staff in the multidisciplinary environment of a national laboratory. We’re proud to support the next generation of scientists at ORNL.”

The BESSD interns joined some 700 students total on campus who took part in ORNL’s summer educational programs.

For Deandre “Dre” Presswood, who worked with ORNL hydrogeochemist Marie Kurz on understanding stream metabolism in urban watersheds, the experience related closely to his master’s research at Georgia State University. “My favorite part of being at Oak Ridge,” he said, “was seeing scientists working in completely different fields come together to work on massive research projects. My time at ORNL has introduced me to new possibilities in regard to future research, and as my career continues, I look forward to collaborating with scientists from differing disciplines.”

Julianne Buggs, a GEM Fellowship student from the University of Miami, worked with ORNL’s Melissa Cregger on a project for the Center for Bioenergy Innovation. Buggs used computational methods to explore the link between the genotypes of poplar trees, a key species of interest as a biofuel crop, and their ability to influence soil carbon storage. “Up to this point, I had very little computational experience in my biology studies, so it’s been great to learn at my own pace at ORNL,” Buggs said.

Aubrey Elwes, a student from New Mexico State University (NMSU), worked with ORNL’s Scott Brooks on watershed ecosystem monitoring. Elwes’ key takeaway this summer has been “recognizing that rivers and streams are capable of decontaminating and cleaning many pollutants via the hydrogeological process. They are in many ways self-sustaining, but we must still put in an effort to protect these crucial ecosystems as they act as a buffer between our contaminants and the oceans and groundwater. This indirectly drives the problem straight back to us in the water we drink and the food we eat.”

For Gladisol Smith Vega, who also attends NMSU and is working with Brooks on watershed sampling, the experience meant “developing plenty of skills in both lab and field work that have helped me to have a better understanding of my research. My favorite part so far has been working in the field with experts in projects that I never imagined doing and learning from in the past. The most important thing in my experience is that the journey can be difficult, but I have stuck to my beliefs and my own confidence. Everything is always a learning experience that lets me grow.”

Hunter Seubert, a master’s student in soil science at Lincoln University of Missouri, participated in a special program overseen by ORNL’s Melanie Mayes and LU’s Sean Zeiger that gave students hands-on experience and training as they learn to measure and model water, energy and carbon ecosystem fluxes. He enjoyed experiencing the “vast spectrum of work taking place, and how the researchers are always pushing toward what’s next in science. There’s a place for people of all backgrounds and experiences at ORNL. It’s a large, interdisciplinary group of minds working towards a common goal.”

For Riley Harrison, a GEM Fellow and Brown University doctoral student who worked with mentor William Alexander on the efficacy of automated genome editing, the program broadened what had been limited experience in microbiology. “Hearing about all the work on different types of bacteria at ORNL really opened my eyes to the potential of synthetic biology. The most important takeaway from this experience is the skills and techniques that I’ve learned. I think that with every new thing that I learn this summer, I get one step closer to being an independent scientist who can be adaptable to different lab environments.”

DeMarcus Turner, a GEM Fellow from Florida A&M University, studied how methane emissions from hydropower reservoirs could be more accurately quantified by using a combined field measurement/statistical modeling approach, working with mentor Natalie Griffiths. Turner collected field samples using a surface water drone, but perhaps his biggest takeaway this summer was appreciating how important research is to society as a whole.

“The largest problems, issues and challenges we face seem a lot smaller when we carry them with our fellow man in thought and action,” said Turner. “ORNL not only has some of the best scientists and researchers, but also some of the most supportive, communitive and attentive groups of people that I have met. ORNL has taught me that you don’t go as far as your dream; you go as far as your team.”

The students participated under a variety of programs, some of which are listed below. For more information on the many student programs available at ORNL, please visit the lab’s Educational Programs portal.

 UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.  —Stephanie Seay and Mimi McHale

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