Physicist Erik Gilson joins Secretary of Energy in panel discussion on DOE internships

Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) and Community College Internships (CCI) students at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and other national laboratories are taking part in a crucial program that will shape their future careers and give them skills that will help them solve the critical scientific challenges the world faces.

That was the message at a panel discussion on the internships attended by more than 660 people that featured Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and PPPL physicist Erik Gilson, who has been a mentor to interns for the past 20 years; another mentor; and four past participants. Deedee Ortiz, PPPL’s Science Education program manager, helped organize the event, which was hosted by DOE’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS).

Granholm offered an enthusiastic welcome to the panel and to the students watching the remote program. “To all the interns who are watching, thank you for choosing to spend the time at your national labs, which really are the crown jewels of the Department of Energy national system,” Granholm said. “I hope that the access will lead you to new research in the future.”

This summer’s SULI program includes 773 interns, while 87 students are participating in CCI. Doon Gibbs, director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, who moderated the panel, noted that more than 60 faculty members from historically underrepresented institutions are also taking part in the DOE’s Visiting Faculty Program.

A need to address “existential crises”

Granholm said the Department of Energy and the world need students who will be the scientists of the future to address climate change and other “existential crises,” which has led to more droughts, fires, and hurricanes over the past several years. Other challenges include “the legacy of the cold war,” including cybersecurity, and cyber threats that threaten the critical infrastructure of the U.S., Granholm said.

“As America’s solutions department, the DOE believes that in order to address all of that we have to rely on our best science and we have to invest in the best scientists and engineers,” she told students. “I know you’ll play an important role in making our world safer, making us healthier.”

The DOE and the nation must have a diverse workforce to succeed in this task, Granholm said. “To truly solve our nation’s greatest challenges we absolutely need every perspective at the table,” she said. She noted that the DOE has invested more than $17 million in new programs to reach students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and at other minority-serving institutions, and it is taking seriously the mission of creating inclusive and equitable research programs “so that every student with talent and passion for research can get this experience to launch their careers.”

The importance of inclusion

Gilson, a physicist in the Plasma Science and Technology Department, emphasized the importance of creating an inclusive environment and having open and honest communications with interns. “Inclusion is really a win-win proposition,” Gilson said. “You don’t reap the benefits of diversity without having inclusion. Inclusive environments don’t automatically happen. You have to work to create them,” Gilson said.

Gilson recalled meeting someone once who was intimidated by him because he is a physicist. “It dawned on me that being a physicist was something that seemed impossible to them, and I thought, ‘What can I do to remove barriers to make people feel welcome and safe to explore science?’ It’s important when working with students then that they should feel they own the work too; they should feel they belong, they should have the excitement of discovery,” Gilson said. “It means listening to what they have to say. It means working to check your conscious and unconscious biases.”

Addressing imposter syndrome

Students may encounter imposter syndrome when they begin doing research because there are few cut-and-dried right answers as there are in high school and college classes, Gilson added. “Sometimes there are no right answers, the answers are messy, and they take a long time,” he said. “You start to feel, ‘Am I doing this right? Do I belong here?’ If you keep at it, you get through it.”

The panel included former interns who have gone on to get high-level jobs at national laboratories and in industry. Among them was Lauri Kight, who worked on cybersecurity as a 2019 SULI student from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Kight got a job on the cybersecurity team of Johnson and Johnson after graduating from Southern University and A&M College with a degree in mathematics and physics. “The most important thing I learned was being able to adapt to learning new concepts and being open to work I’m not familiar with,” she said.

A “life changing” experience

Sam Hollifield, a staff member in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) National Security Sciences Directorate, Cyber Resilience and Intelligence Division, discussed how important the internship was in his career after he returned to college in his mid-twenties. Hollifield was a Community College Internship student in the summer of 2018 and a SULI student at ORNL in the fall of 2018, both of which led to his current job. “The experience was nothing short of life changing,” he said.

The four former interns were all very impressive, Gilson said. “It was uplifting just to see these four young people who seem like they’ve been launched like a rocket. They just seem like they’re on their way to great things. I’d like to imagine it was the SULI and CCI programs that molded them into this. It was reassuring and exciting to think of a future where these young people are going to be the movers and shakers and the leaders.”

Ping Ge, DOE’s WDTS director, called the panel “enlightening and inspiring”.

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