Editor's note: This article was originally posted on Argonne National Laboratory's website.
Betmarie Matos Vazquez came to U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory seeking a more in-depth understanding of science.
Sure, she learned a lot of theory and gained textbook knowledge about chemical engineering as an undergraduate at Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, but Matos Vazquez wanted to get out of the classroom and into the real scientific world. And almost as soon as she found a DOE website about internship opportunities, she knew that the DOE’s laboratory system, and Argonne specifically, had exactly what she needed.
Students like Betmarie represent the next generation of scientists and we must encourage their curiosity.
“In the university, it’s all theoretical,” Matos Vazquez said. “They teach you steps. Sure, you get to do a lab here and there, but it’s very different from being in the actual field. At Argonne, the science is happening right now and you learn that you’re going to have obstructions in your way. As a scientist, you need to know how to fix them and move forward.”
Matos Vazquez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, decided fairly early on in her academic career that she wanted a hands-on experience with a scientific organization. In 2016, during her sophomore year, her college suggested several places to which she could apply, but her own research uncovered the internship with the Materials and Chemistry Initiative.
“Puerto Rico can be pretty isolated, so I actually didn’t know a lot about the labs to begin with,” Matos Vazquez said. “I applied based on the internship projects, not a specific lab location. But after I spoke more with the people at Argonne, I became very interested in this specific lab.”
The Materials and Chemistry Initiative plays an important role at Argonne since a great deal of research is devoted to basic science discoveries. It involves catalysis (the discovery and enhancement of catalysts that facilitate chemical reactions), energy storage, quantum information systems and energy-water systems. Vazquez’s internship in nanotechnology straddles these areas.
Working with nanotechnology was pretty far removed from her more standardized classes at the university, but when she was offered an internship with Argonne chemist Ralu Divan, she jumped at it. The pairing was so successful that when Matos Vazquez applied for another internship in 2018, she was invited back.
During her internship, she is helping Divan’s team on a phase grading project, which looks at nanostructures and etching processes to improve X-ray optics and X-ray astronomy. The research could also improve the aspect resolution of a wide array of microscopes.
“Right now we are trying to get the silicon etching part of that to work,” Matos Vazquez said. “We’re trying different formulas and recipes to get there, but we’re close.”
Approaching the problem and facing obstacles is part of the fun of science, she said. And working with Divan has helped her understand and develop her scientific creative problem-solving abilities.
“Getting the answers requires creativity, but you also have to be very specific about everything,” Matos Vazquez said. “If you don’t take very specific notes, you miss things.”
The internships have also helped her make more friends with students from across the country, who share similar interests. She and her fellow interns typically stay together in the Argonne dorms. And Argonne takes them on picnics and field trips to learn more about the area.
The overall culture provides a heightened atmosphere for learning, with enthusiastic students who love sharing tidbits about their work.
“We have high expectations for each of Argonne’s undergraduate interns, and Betmarie exceeded them,” said Meridith Bruozas, manager of the laboratory’s educational programs and outreach. “Students like Betmarie represent the next generation of scientists and we must encourage their curiosity.”
Now in her senior year, Matos Vazquez said she wants to pursue a career in nanotechnology, perhaps eventually working for Argonne. And based on her own experiences, she hopes more students will discover the opportunities that national lab internships provide.
“We want to understand interfacial processes which play a huge role in catalysis, energy storage and energy-water systems,” said Kawtar Hafidi, associate laboratory director for Physical Sciences and Engineering. “Argonne’s internship programs help us advance toward that goal as well as encourage the next generation of scientists to join us.”
Vazquez’s internship was sponsored by the Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program, within the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.