Many of us remember writing that dreaded essay about how we spent our summer vacation — often struggling to recall what we did or make it sound interesting.
That won’t be a problem for the almost 800 students at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory this summer. They will have challenging and rewarding experiences to share with friends and families.
Take Isis Carrillo, for example, a University of Washington student planning to study molecular and cellular biology. She is working alongside PNNL mentors in instrument development and microfabrication laboratories, gaining useful skills and invaluable experience.
Carrillo is exploring new methods for preparing and analyzing ultra-small samples for proteomic analyses; specifically, methods that reduce or avoid sample loss. This would allow biologists and medical researchers to develop detailed pictures of the proteins that are expressed in rare cell types, and even single cells that do not provide sufficient sample material for current analytic techniques.
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Every year, PNNL plays host to hundreds of undergrad students like Isis, as well as several hundred graduate students and even some high school students. We also hire research associates who already have earned their degrees and wish to gain work experience. Our visitors arrive throughout the year, with some staying year-round, but the vast majority are here for just the summer. Having so many young people learning more about PNNL and the Tri-Cities generates a real buzz on campus.
We are happy to provide these learning opportunities and take genuine pride in the students’ accomplishments, but we also have a vested interest in attracting youth to careers in science and engineering — as well as helping the teachers who prepare them for these careers. Our ability to address the most challenging problems in science, energy, the environment and national security depends on it.
DOE and Battelle, which manages PNNL, recognize the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. It is the foundation for future employees, whose exciting discoveries and inventions will strengthen America’s ability to compete globally.
Our students come from universities across the country, including contingents from the University of Washington, Washington State University and Columbia Basin College.
Nhuy Van, a CBC student, is working to improve a software program that reads and visualizes data from cross-sections of mouse brains. He is helping to write a web application that will make this software more widely and easily accessible by researchers. Nhuy plans to transfer to WSU Tri-Cities to continue his studies in software engineering.
In another project, Tenisha Meadows, a graduate student in chemistry at WSU, is working to understand conditions that affect the processing of legacy tank waste at places like Hanford. She is using a scientific measurement technique called spectroscopy to observe what is happening inside the tank. This data will improve predictions of when certain solids will form, which in turn helps us understand the correlation between material characteristics and process history.
Beyond providing these learning experiences at PNNL, Battelle is committed to improving STEM education at all levels. In the last year alone, we awarded more than $300,000 in grants to benefit K-20 schools, higher education institutions, community partnerships and other non-profit organizations. Since 1965, Battelle has contributed more than $11 million to STEM education, as well as the time and energy of our scientists, engineers and STEM education coordinators working with educators and students in our community.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The future depends on what you do today.” At PNNL, we are committed to inspiring today’s youth to become tomorrow’s discoverers and inventors. But we cannot do it alone. Please encourage your children to take an interest in science and engineering. Ask them why or how something works. Seeking the answers will open their minds.
Steve Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly.