When Jasmine Hatcher started community college, she was encouraged by her family to pursue a nursing career. But her mindset quickly changed when her chemistry professor suggested she intern for a research team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory. There, a new field captured her interest as she spent her summer investigating chemical elements crucial for dealing with nuclear waste. Hatcher—now in the last phases of her doctoral work—is still at the Lab, researching radioactive elements that can zap cancer cells and potentially cure patients.

Like Hatcher, Trishelle Copeland-Johnson interned at a DOE national laboratory—actually, two—during her undergraduate years. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, she explored ways to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, and later investigated the components of osteoarthritis treatment injections at Ames Laboratory. Now a graduate student, she’s working at Brookhaven Lab to improve materials used to prevent potential disasters at nuclear reactors.

Both Hatcher and Copeland-Johnson said their experiences with the DOE’s Community College Internships (CCI) Program and the Student Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) Program helped jump-start their interests in science. Sponsored by DOE’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) within the Department’s Office of Science, these programs encourage students to pursue their passions and give them the opportunity to solve real-world challenges with leading scientists in their fields.

“These internships are crucial because they inspire the next generation of scientists,” said Noel Blackburn, manager of DOE programs within Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs.

Applying radiochemistry to nuclear energy and medicine

“When I started doing research at the Lab, I thought it was the coolest thing,” said Hatcher, who first came to Brookhaven through the CCI Program. Her main focus was synthesizing ionic liquids—salts that are liquid at room temperature that have many applications, one of which is the separation and conversion of radioactive waste products.

Now working toward her Ph.D. in chemistry at Hunter College, Hatcher says some of her thesis work is still related to ionic liquids. But her main focus is radiochemistry—what she dubs her “true calling.” Under the mentorship of Hunter College professor Lynn Francesconi and Cathy Cutler, director of Brookhaven’s Medical Isotope Research and Production Program, Hatcher works on separating elements to extract Actinium 225, a rare radioactive element that can be used in cancer radiation therapy.

“Radiochemistry helps scientists solve the world’s medical and energy problems,” Hatcher said. “For me, working with radiochemistry and knowing that in a few years we might be able to help people is significant.”

She plans to defend her thesis this month and hopes to obtain a postdoc position at Brookhaven so she can continue her research on Actinium 225.

Testing materials for safer reactors

Copeland-Johnson also began her research career as a CCI intern, researching ways to improve vehicle fuel efficiency and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions at Oak Ridge in Tennessee. Then, after graduating from community college, she interned through the SULI Program at Ames Lab in Iowa, where she developed gel scaffolds that stabilize damaged joint tissue in patients suffering from the effects of physical trauma.

“Those internships gave me the chance to find out what areas of science I was most interested in,” explained Copeland-Johnson. Her experience developing chemical processes and materials—like the gel scaffolds—inspired her to pursue a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Iowa State University.

The materials she’s currently exploring are designed to improve the safety of nuclear reactors. Under the direction of advisors Nicola Bowler at Iowa State University and Simerjeet Gill in Brookhaven’s Nuclear Science and Technology Department, Copeland-Johnson is using synchrotron techniques at the National Synchrotron Light Source II and electron microscopy techniques at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials to characterize and test new materials for nuclear fuel cladding—the encasement for fuel rods in nuclear reactors.

Most fuel claddings are made out of a zirconium-based alloy, which is resistant to radiation and able to withstand typical operating conditions. However, if zirconium-based alloys are exposed to steam, they produce an overabundant amount of hydrogen, which can cause explosions like the one that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, leading to catastrophic contamination following an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Copeland-Johnson and her team are studying different metallic alloys that have “accident tolerant” properties even at high temperatures during nuclear reactor failures. Her summer work at the Lab is funded from a prestigious fellowship awarded by the National GEM Consortium, an organization that recruits and trains exceptional underrepresented students looking to pursue advanced degrees in applied science and engineering. 

“I definitely recommend the [CCI and SULI] programs to students who are interested in understanding what it’s like to be a scientist,” Copeland-Johnson said. “Internships like these are very helpful for gaining experience, even if you decide not to go into research.”

Blackburn agreed. “You don’t have to go to Harvard or Yale to become a successful scientist,” he said. “If you dream big and remain dedicated to executing your plans, then you can accomplish whatever you want.”

NSLS-II and CFN are both DOE Office of Science user facilities.

Hatcher’s work in the Medical Isotope Research and Production Program is funded by the DOE Office of Science and by Brookhaven Lab Program Development funds. Copeland Johnson’s work is funded by DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The 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, please visit science.energy.gov.

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