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For Science Students, Oak Ridge Program Is a Transformative Experience

For Science Students, Oak Ridge Program Is a Transformative Experience April 24, 2015
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“For most students this is a transformative experience,” said Dr. Daniel Gibson, Director of the Oak Ridge Science Semester (ORSS). “They leave this program with more energy than they enter it, which is an impressive thing when you consider the fact that they’re taking two classes, they’re writing a short paper, a long paper, and a poster presentation — all while they’re working a minimum of 40 hours a week in a laboratory.”

ORNL entrance

The program places students as full-fledged members of research teams at a world-class research facility, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. It’s the largest U.S. Department of Energy science and energy laboratory conducting basic and applied research. The ORNL staff of 4,400 includes scientists and engineers in more than 100 disciplines, with another 3,200 visiting scientists and other users at the facility each year.

ORSS is a fall semester program operated by Denison University, where Gibson is a physics professor, and welcomes students in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, geoscience, environmental science, and interdisciplinary sciences.

The program draws students, as well as visiting faculty who accompany the students at ORNL, from member colleges of the ACM and the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA). This fall,  Sally Meyer, Professor of Chemistry at Colorado College, will serve as the program’s visiting Resident Director.

Stephanie Sanders, a chemistry and math major at Albion College, worked in the Geochemistry and Interfacial Sciences research group when she participated in the program in fall 2014. She arrived at ORNL without a background in geochemistry and found that she really enjoyed the field, in large part due to Dr. Gernot Rother, the staff scientist who served as her mentor.

Fall 2014 ORSS groupFall 2014 Oak Ridge Science Semester group: (row 1) Stefan Blachut, Kangmin Kim; (row 2) Oanh Vu, Yijun Liao; (row 3) Jinhee Kim, Stephanie Sanders; (row 4) Jason Chien, Catherine Meyer; (row 5) Justin Jagodinsky, Jihang Wang; (top row) ORSS Program Director Daniel Gibson, 2014 ORSS Resident Director Jonathan Peterson.

“I got support from my mentor in learning what I needed to know, and he was always around to help when I needed it,” she said. “As a result of my work, I will be a co-author on a paper and had my data presented at a national conference by [Dr. Rother].”

In addition to her main research work, Sanders got the chance to briefly work in another area. “ORNL is best known for its neutron facilities, and I was able to participate in a small angle neutron scattering experiment in my last week at ORNL,” she noted. “Neutron scattering is done very few places in the world, so being able to participate in a neutron experiment was a unique opportunity available because of my involvement in ORSS.”

The connections that ORSS students make with mentors and other members of their research teams are among the major benefits of the program experience, according to Gibson. Mentors often write letters of recommendation for graduate school and there can be continuing opportunities for research, as well.

“Two years ago we had nine students in the program and every single one of them continued working with their lab group in some fashion,” said Gibson. “Some students made plans and came back and worked the following summer at the lab. There are also students who do contract work for the lab, and just get paid by the hour to do data analysis or to write papers for the lab, and they do that the following semester at their home college.”

Each student’s work on an ongoing project with a research team is the primary component of the ORSS curriculum, with eight semester credits and a time commitment of at least 40 hours per week. An interdisciplinary seminar that introduces students to the research areas at ORNL is also required, and most students take an advanced course taught by the program’s visiting resident faculty member.

“Outside of my lab work, the other students participating in ORSS and I toured the graphite reactor, biofuels lab, the super computers, nano center, and the neutron facilities,” Sanders said. “There are so many interesting historical and scientific aspects of ORNL that students are introduced to while in Oak Ridge. In ORSS, you will develop as a scientist and a person with the help of your mentor, the program professor, and your peers.”

“It’s essentially a given now that anyone who is planning post-baccalaureate work, especially in science, is going to have had an on-campus research experience,” Gibson said. “That’s become a minimum. The students who get graduate fellowships are the ones who did on-campus research as sophomores and went on an off-campus science program, such as Oak Ridge, as juniors or seniors.”

Fall 2014 ORSS participants and their projects at ORNL

2014 Resident Director: Jonathan Peterson

Professor of Geology & Environmental Science, Hope College

Stefan Blachut, Albion College
Majors: Physics and Mathematics
Research mentor: Sreenivas Rangan Sukumar
Project: Propagation Modeling and Extracting Features using Social Network Analysis Methods
Yijun Liao, Hope College
Major: Chemistry
Research mentor: Bruce Moyer
Project: Using Guanidines to Selectively Separate Sulfate from Complex Aqueous Mixtures of Anions
Jason Chien, Grinnell College
Majors: Biological Chemistry and Russian
Research mentor: Robert Standaert
Project: A Cell-Free Protein Synthesis System for Producing an Erythromycin Precursor
Catherine Meyer, Carleton College
Major: Physics
Research mentor: Laura Harvey
Project: Identifying More Efficient Methods for Rare Earth Isobar Separations
Justin Jagodinsky, Coe College
Major: Biology
Research mentor: Jennifer Morrell-Falvey
Project: The Carotenoid Zeaxanthin Contributes to Membrane Organization and Defensive Against Oxidative Stress in Pantoea sp. YR343
Stephanie Sanders, Albion College
Majors: Chemistry and Math
Research mentor: Gernot Rother
Project: Adsorption of Light Hydrocarbons on Nanoporous Substrates
Jinhee Kim, Earlham College
Majors: Chemistry and Math
Research mentor: Changwoo Do
Project: Temperature-dependent Phase Behavior of Pluronic F127 Triblock Copolymers in Water
Oanh Vu, Grinnell College
Major: Biochemistry
Research mentor: Hugh O’Neill
Project: Overexpressing and Purifying N-terminal Domain of the Arabidopsis Cellulose Synthase Protein CESA1
Kang-Min Kim, Colorado College
Major: Chemistry
Research mentors: M. Parans Paranthaman and Craig Bridges
Project: Synthesis of Novel Solid-state Neutron Detectors
Jihang Wang, Cornell College
Majors: Chemistry and Biochemistry/Molecular Biology
Research mentor: Shannon Mahurin
Project: Energy-efficient Separation of CO2 by Room-temperature Ionic Liquids


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