DOE National Laboratories Train the Scientist of Tomorrow

As September transitions to October, school students across the country are settling into another academic year. Inevitably someone raises the question – What did you do this summer? For hundreds of undergraduate students, the answer is: "I worked at one of the preeminent national labs in the United States."

This past summer 301 students nationwide slipped on lab coats and joined the scientists at 13 of the 17 Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories as part of the DOE Office of Science (SC) flagship Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program (SULI).

The SULI program has been in effect since the inception of DOE's predecessor agencies. Although the program has gone by many different names, it has supported tens of thousands of undergraduate students with science internships over the past 60 years.

SULI interns come from a variety of educational backgrounds, spanning computer science, Earth and environmental science, marine science, physics, life science, physical science, and mathematics.

Nakita Horrell, an environmental engineering student at Utah State University, was interested in nuclear energy and began surfing the DOE website to learn about the field. "I was curious about employment opportunities with the Department of Energy so I checked into the SULI program. I thought it might be a good way to get my foot in the door."

"The internship program is competitive," said Sue Ellen Walbridge, program manager of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) that administers the SULI program, "The office received more than 2,300 applications in 2009."

Every year, the education department of each National Laboratory sifts through the applications and evaluates the applicant pool based on their academic coursework, recommendations, scientific interests, and compatibility with the research programs at the facilities.

Horrell and her SULI contemporaries began a ten week program in mid-June. The students collaborated with scientist mentors on cutting-edge research projects.

"I worked with my mentor Dawn Wellman, at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland Wash." said Horrell. "With my project, we wanted to quantify the dissolution rate of iron phosphate glass, which could provide an alternate way to store nuclear waste."


Photo Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Marie Galante is a physics major at Albion College and a participant of the 2009 SULI program.

Marie Galante, a physics major at Albion College, participated as a SULI intern at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. with an eye on working eventually in the emerging green industry. Galante's project examined ways to improve the top layer of a solar cell.

"The top layer needs to be transparent to let the light in and conductive so the electricity can flow. That's what I was trying to maximize over the summer - how light can come into the solar cell and power it" said Galante.

During the summer, the interns schedule time around their research projects to attend lectures, tours, and group activities. At the end of the internship, the students submit final presentations and research papers.

Students normally participate in internships during the summer months, but the program also offers spring and fall internships. In 2009, 19 students participated in the spring internship and 21 students are currently participating in the fall internship.

One common thread is clear: this program is a springboard to careers in science. "This program exposes students to work at state-of-the-art laboratories where they work with top scientists in the country addressing issues of national need" said Walbridge.

"Working at PNNL inspired me to continue my education and work toward my PhD" said Horrell, who is narrowing down her choices for graduate schools based on continuing the research that she began this summer as part of her SULI internship.


Photo Credit: Workforce Development for Students and Teachers program

Andrew Fidler participated in the 2008 SULI program at Ames national laboratory.

Andrew Fidler, 2007 SULI intern at Ames National Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, is now attending the University of Chicago for graduate studies in Chemistry. While a SULI intern, Fidler worked on a groundbreaking discovery that lead can form a superconducting suprafroth: a bubble-like arrangement of superconducting cell walls similar in appearance to common froths, such as soap foam. Fidler's advisor, Ruslan Prozorov, published the research findings in the journal Nature Physics with Fidler as a co-author.

"Before SULI, I wasn't expecting to be able to get a journal article published as an undergraduate, let alone in such a reputable journal" said Fidler.

"The SULI program serves a critical need, which is to provide opportunities for undergraduates to work in real-world research settings to get the practical experience they need to become the next generation of scientists and engineers" said Steve Karsjen, SULI program coordinator at Ames National Laboratory.

To learn more about the SULI program and upcoming application dates, please visit

The Department of Energy Office of Science Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists program conducts the Summer Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program (SULI) program as part of a continuum of opportunities to the Nation's students and teachers of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

This article was written by Stacy W. Kish.