Department of Energy

Author:  Alexander Patananan
Institution:  UCLA
Date:  March 2010

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) provides a wealth of opportunities for undergraduate students interested in conducting research in the fields of science and engineering. Through the DOE's Office for Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists, undergraduate students are placed in one of the several national laboratories for a ten to sixteen week long internship, performing novel research with a DOE staff scientist. Not only is it often the case that students depart from these internships with a greater appreciation of the sciences and a host of new friends, but they also frequently leave with a real science publication and experiences that will help them throughout life. As a recipient of three DOE internships, I can proudly attest to the fact that these experiences are truly one of a kind and have had a profound impact on my life and future career.

The DOE currently offers three main paid internships to undergraduates: the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI), the Community College Institute on Science and Technology (CCI), and the Pre-Service Teacher internship (PST). Under these internships, the students receive a stipend of approximately $4500 for a ten-week program that is offered not only in the summer, but also in the Fall and Spring for the SULI program. The SULI program, open to undergraduates of all year levels, is a demanding internship that requires students to act with utmost responsibility and professionalism as they devote forty or more hours per week toward activities and research related to their internship. Furthermore, participants are required to write a scientific research paper concerning their own projects at the end of the internship, which can be submitted to the DOE's Journal of Undergraduate Research (JUR) or another science journal, such as the Journal of Young Investigators. Although all participants in DOE internships have their abstracts published in JUR, only the best manuscripts are chosen to be published in full. To have your complete manuscript published is not only a great honor because you have successfully competed against hundreds of other undergraduates from all of the national laboratories across the country, but also entails great responsibility as you are also consequentially selected to present your research and represent the DOE at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Annual Meeting. CCI is similarly structured to the SULI program, but is open only to students enrolled or who have recently just graduated from a community college. Finally, the PST program is designed for undergraduate students who are seriously considering the field of teaching in science, mathematics, or techcnology as their career path. Although PST interns also have their own research projects with a mentor scientist, they are additionally mentored by a current K-12 teacher who guides them through the art of preparing material for the classroom.

The unique aspect of DOE internships is the level of responsibility and professionalism that is expected of each participant. These are not just summer getaways where you mostly relax and party, although you will indeed have the opportunity to do so after work! Instead, you are treated as an ordinary staff member, and consequentially have the responsibilities of one. Although you usually have a senior scientist as a mentor, you are assigned your own unique research project with the expectation that a significant deliverable will be achieved. Like a real scientist, you will frequently be placed in situations were difficult decisions must be made, such as in the case of equipment failure, dealing with regulations, or just having experiments that just plain do not work. Although this may seem to be a daunting challenge to some, it is these expectations and responsibilities that prove to be the most valuable learning experiences that prepare you for graduate school, medical school, or your future career.

As a mentioned previously, I have been blessed to be awarded three internships with the DOE over my undergraduate career: one CCI and two SULI internships. To me, the experiences I gained have proven invaluable in my doctoral studies. One thing I found most valuable during the internships were the weekly seminars and enrichment activities. Ranging from a presentation of a senior scientist's research to how to write a manuscript, these seminars taught us how to think and grow as future scientists. Through the numerous enrichment activities, such as jet boat rides of the Columbia River and tours of the Hanford nuclear reactors, we learned about the natural and human history of the Washington area, especially during World War II. Additionally, although it might sound quite odd, the thing I learned the most and greatly appreciated about these internships are the various problems that I encountered. For example, during my internships, I dealt with numerous budget issues, problems with equipment (i.e. high-performance liquid chromatography difficulties), and rules and regulations that had to be addressed before I could proceed with my research. Nonetheless, I look back and cherish these experiences. Although these situations sound like events that you would want to avoid, these challenges actually drove me to pursue my research more passionately. As a result, I was blessed in 2008 to have my full research manuscript published in the DOE's Journal of Undergraduate Research, and was privileged to be invited and participate in the poster presentation competition at the 2008 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.

I would highly recommend the DOE's undergraduate internships. Not only will they challenge you in ways that will make you a better scientist, engineer, or doctor, but they will help you forge new friendships with people from around the world. Consequentially, it is the Journal of Young Investigators great honor and privilege to publish the research manuscripts produced by some of the brightest undergraduates who participated in the DOE's internships during 2009. We greatly look forward to the publications from 2010!