One of my favorite roles as a National Laboratory Director is welcoming about 200 students each June when they arrive on site for Brookhaven Lab’s summer internship programs. These students, from a remarkable diversity of backgrounds and cultures, and from colleges and universities across the nation, are about to join of one of the most impactful scientific research communities in the world – the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratory system.
DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar opened Brookhaven Lab’s 2018 summer internship program speaking to an auditorium full of college students ready to explore their passion for discovery here. Under Secretary Dabbar, the executive science leader of the DOE research enterprise, shared his excitement for the innovation and discovery possible at National Labs. He discussed his belief that the next revolution in computing, the next breakthrough in advanced particle detectors, the ability to explore Mars, or the deeper understanding of the atomic nucleus will likely come from researchers working at DOE National Laboratories.
The Under Secretary’s overall message to the new scientists: There’s a place for you at the National Labs in solving challenges that are critical to our nation. The labs are home to visionary scientific advances, but also play a role in entrepreneurship and innovation — they conceive, invent, and do — and you can be part of that.
At each opening ceremony, you can feel the excitement in the audience. The students are meeting each other for the first time, wondering what kinds of work they will be doing, and no doubt, wondering what it will be like to live on Long Island in New York for eight weeks. The biggest requirement for success is simple—it’s indulging your passion for discovering new things using remarkably sophisticated facilities and ideas, and then thinking about how to use what you learned to make the world a better place. It’s fun to be a scientist, working with other scientists, and that comes through from this group every year.
The students have much in common with those of us who have been in the Lab system for years. We like testing new ideas by working on experiments at the lab bench, collecting data in the field, or employing one of the Lab’s premiere research facilities. Then, analyzing and thinking through the collected data, and using advanced computing to produce answers that will take our work to the next level.
The interns have a chance to do that in our large user facilities and labs when they, for example:
- Analyze the structure of a biological protein using tools at the National Synchrotron Light Source II, underpinned by sophisticated data collection and computational modeling techniques.
- Are part of a team synthesizing medical radioisotopes that have the potential to cure cancer.
- Discover new materials for solar cells using tools at the nanoscale level to advance our ability to capture and convert the sun’s energy more efficiently.
- Explore the origins of visible matter using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, replicating the conditions of the universe one millionth of a second after the Big Bang.
It is a privilege for us to host the more than 35,000 elementary, high school, and college students and teachers who come to Brookhaven each year. It is a national imperative to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, reaching further and more inclusively than we ever have before, to advance the scientific enterprise and keep the U.S. at the leading edge of discovery.
At the end of the 10-week summer session, I always tell the students, “We want you back,” either for another internship, as a graduate student or post-doc, or as a staff scientist—whether that’s at Brookhaven or another National Lab. I also invite them to write to me personally —if they’re interested in what we’re doing, if they’re looking for a job, or if they just want to say “hi.” That’s our goal—to nurture and sustain a connection with science that they’ll carry throughout their careers.
Cultivating their enthusiasm and talent, and taking advantage of the diversity of their backgrounds and cultures, is an essential task for us and for the nation. This next generation of scientists and engineers will drive discovery and innovation, and the world will be a better place for it.