Summers in the National Laboratory

During the summer, many natural science majors at UT will use what could be vacation time to work in a lab on campus or shadow a doctor. Another great opportunity which is often overlooked is an internship at a national laboratory. I was fortunate enough to intern at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA for the past two summers. Last summer I was a contractor with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and this past summer I was an intern with the Department of Energy’s Science Undergraduate Internship Program (SULI). While they are both internship programs at a government facility, there are some differences between the two experiences that I will discuss.
I had to apply online for the DHS internship, which consisted of basic information, university information, clubs and activities, availability dates (the internship lasts for ten weeks), two recommendation letters, and three essay questions.  A nice thing about this program in particular is that I was able to indicate the top five projects which I found interesting. The mentors on those projects would then receive my application and decide whether or not I would be a good fit for their project. I have to admit that the application process is a bit tedious, but the acceptance email surely makes it all worth it.

As a DHS contractor, I was not paid by Battelle, the company that manages PNNL. I was instead considered “black badge,” which meant that my access to buildings was much more restricted relative to a regular full-time employee, but my mentor was able to work around this, and provided me access to necessary buildings.  During my stay, I worked on utilized nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy for source attribution signatures of compounds of interest for forensic chemistry applications (I’m not allowed to say much more, as it’s government property). As part of the program, I was also required to write a final report and present during a poster session at the lab. Working as a DHS contractor allowed me to gain many skills which all scientists need to utilize, and I am glad the program required us to do so.
The SULI application was very similar to the DHS application, with the glaring exception that I was not allowed to pick the specific project. Instead, I was able to pick my top three subject areas (i.e. biochemistry, radiochemistry, etc.). The program managers  then matched me to a mentor based on my top pick. This can be a bit hit-or-miss, as sometimes there aren’t any mentors who will line up completely with your area of interest. The SULI program is also not as flexible time-wise as the DHS program, as there are only two ten-week program sessions each summer.

Unlike the DHS program, I was considered an employee by Battelle and thus had “green badge” status (they take their badges seriously at this lab). I didn’t have to wait nearly as long for full building access, which allowed me to fully immerse myself in the project much quicker. The project I worked on was the development of an automated microfluidic platform to buffer and label radioactive zirconium-89 onto pre-modified monoclonal antibodies for potential use in Immuno-PET (positron emission tomography) scanning. Again, I’m not really allowed to say much more . The SULI program also had a paper requirement, but instead of a poster session, I was required to give a ten-minute oral presentation in front of my peers and full-time employees of the lab.
While the two programs are quite different in many respects, both gave me the opportunity to see what it is like to work at a national laboratory. Thanks to my experiences the last two summers, I am strongly considering working at a national laboratory in the future. If you have any further questions about anything national lab related, please feel free to email me at and I will try my best to answer your question!


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