Newswise — Savanna Dautle, who majors in chemical engineering and math at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, spent her summer working with assistant chemist David Bross in the Chemical Sciences and Engineering division (CSE) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. Their goal is to develop more reliable computer models and more accurate data for gaseous systems. According to Bross, the project is aimed at seeing how scientists can use machine-learning concepts to enable better modeling of chemical systems.

The work — part of the laboratory’s strategic initiative to discover emergent phenomena and synthesize novel materials and chemical systems in materials and chemistry — is no walk in the park: Experiments that reveal thermodynamic data for solids and liquids are themselves fairly complex, but identifying data for pure gases poses its own challenges. Done well, the theoretical, mechanics-based statistical approaches that Argonne chemists use to characterize gaseous systems can produce data that are as good as, and sometimes even more reliable than, those resulting from actual experiments.

“I might be in chemistry and you might be in physics. But we all think science is really cool.” — Savanna Dautle, Chemical Sciences and Engineering division intern

SULI Internships

Savanna was one of more than 90 students conducting research with laboratory mentors as part of the DOE Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program this past summer, said Rob Schuch, university resource developer for educational programs at Argonne.

In the fall, interested students can apply to any of the DOE laboratories; researchers review the application database to identify the best matches in terms of ongoing research projects.  

“It’s a highly competitive process and a prestigious internship,” said Schuch.

The internships give students the chance to apply their classroom learning to “today's highly complex, real-world science problems,” said Meridith Bruozas, manager of educational programs at Argonne.

“It’s the ultimate test of [a student’s] knowledge and understanding,” Bruozas added. “When I visit labs with students, I am very impressed by our students’ creativity, tenacity and the drive they bring to their projects and the teams they join during their summer internship.”

Internships benefit students and mentors

The process is rewarding for both the student and mentor, said Bross, who enjoys sharing his work with interns. “You get the opportunity to showcase how you do your work to a student […] It gives us positive outreach and has an impact on the next generation of scientists,” he said.

“There are also a number of benefits for students: They see the way we perform research and look at problems. If they plan to go to grad school, we have many people they can talk to who can help them choose what programs to pursue. It’s valuable from several perspectives,” he added.

Working with interns involves a combination of hands-on mentoring and allowing them to learn from their own discoveries.

“We check in on a regular basis,” Bross said. “Some of it is hands-on, but it’s rather impressive what they can get done in a very short time. They come in knowing little about programming and the environments in which they do programming. They come up with a system and write codes.”

The internships offer social, as well as academic and professional benefits for the students. Dautle said life with fellow students on Argonne’s campus provides great opportunities to bond and share experiences with like-minded peers.

“We get excited about things most other people think are really boring,” said Dautle. “Even everyday topics of conversation tend to stray into the more technical. It’s just a bunch of people interested in the same kind of things you are — but maybe not specifically. I might be in chemistry and you might be in physics. But we all think science is really cool.”

In her free time, Dautle hung out with her roommates and other interns from all over the country. They used the lab’s free shuttle bus to see a movie each week and another bus to visit Chicago on weekends.

Some students lived at the laboratory in a half-dozen apartment buildings that each house five or six students. “We come home from work and tell stories about all this stuff that happened,” Dautle said. “In some cases, we collaborate.”

In one such collaboration, Dautle shared data with Alex Oliveira, another intern working with Bross on computer modeling of gas behavior. “We use a lot of the same datasets,” Dautle said. “If she has an Excel spreadsheet already made, she’ll send it over to me and say, ‘Here are the frequencies you’re looking for,’ so I don’t spend two days trying to work out the same set.”

Three of Dautle’s roommates knew each other from classes at the University of Chicago. “We’re all working on cool stuff here and at our home universities,” she said. “It’s kind of nice to be around a whole bunch of nerds and do nerdy things.”

Mostly, they just enjoyed each other’s company. “We sit in the common area and hang out,” Dautle said. “Someone will be cooking, someone will be playing guitar and someone will be flipping through GRE vocabulary words. We’re all just talking.”

The SULI program is funded by DOE’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists in the Office of Science.

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 60 nations, 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.