Summer Internship Programs Put the Electron in Electronic

  • poster of summer undergraduate interns and lab director

Jefferson Lab’s summer programs help interns thrive by going digital

Many of the summer science students who interned at the Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility this year have never set foot on the lab’s research campus. However, that didn’t stop them from completing challenging research projects, having positive interactions with mentors and doing fun activities with their peers as interns at a world-renowned national laboratory.

Lisa Surles-Law, Jefferson Lab Science Education team lead, said that while the success of the summer programs is the result of many factors, most of the credit can be attributed to the hard work from all involved.

“When COVID-19 shifted lab operations, and we began to realize the impact, we knew we had to adjust and we knew we wanted to continue with the programs,” she said.

As Jefferson Lab closed its campus to all but essential on-site employees for minimal operations in mid-March, the DOE Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program was already well into pre-production.

Applications had been collected, hopeful interns were vetted, and the Science Education team had already received a list of lab staff interested in being a part of the 2020 SULI summer internship that has been offered on-site at the Jefferson Lab research campus for decades.

Preparing for a Virtual Summer

“We already had the list of students that we planned on accepting into our 2020 SULI class,” shared Surles-Law. “Our team, including the mentors and the students, had to determine what could take place remotely and what could not.”

The Science Education team had to move quickly if they were to successfully retool the summer science student programs as a fully virtual experience.

The team started with the students’ mentors, who are typically laboratory staff scientists or engineers. The team surveyed the mentors to assess which projects could be accomplished remotely. Several variables were considered, such as which projects could translate to an online environment, what the mentors’ comfort level was in working with students online, and what technical requirements could be accomplished off-site.

Applicants were similarly surveyed. Surles-Law said that since many of the students had just ended college semesters remotely, they felt comfortable stepping into the redeveloped program, eventually filling out a class of 13 SULI summer interns.

Once the team had created the needs assessments for the SULI program, the assessments were modified to fit the application process for the other summer internship programs that the lab offers: the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) through Old Dominion University that added another eight students, and the Mexican Physical Society program, which selects one exceptional Mexican student.

“I was excited that we were able to continue to offer all our undergraduate programs due to the successful transition to remote internships,” said Surles-Law.   

Designing the Digital Experience

Jalyn Dio is a rising junior at Regent University, who is majoring in biophysical science. She assists Surles-Law with the coordination of the summer internship programs and interacts daily with both the mentors and the students. As a current Jefferson Lab intern herself, she is passionate about making the summer program an impactful experience.

“This has been a great experiment. Instead of going with the tried and true, we have been able to take a look at what will work more efficiently this year for the goals, while integrating best practices from previous years,” Dio said.

She iterated that rather than seeing the current situation as a deterrent to the programs, everyone she has interacted with has seen it as an opportunity to explore new technologies to help make the programs stronger.

One way that the team has done that, according to Surles-Law, is to continue to require that the interns interact in so-called ‘mandatory fun’ sessions. Normally, these sessions would include a trip to the beach, an amusement park visit or a picnic. This year, the team got creative by playing online team games and streaming videos with the interns.

“The first time we played a game, I started to wrap it up at 30 minutes, but no one left the call…so we started a new round. And then no one left the call…so we played again!” Surles-Law explained. “These young professionals understand the value of connecting with their cohort, their mentors and the professionals that present in seminars, and it’s incredible to see these relationships develop online.”

But the planning for the internships went far beyond fun and games. The Science Education team also focused significant effort on other opportunities to support the students and mentors, even as they strove to ensure that student participants felt they were experiencing the positive aspects of the lab’s culture, if from afar.

“These summer programs could not happen without the support of the entire Jefferson Lab community. It’s an amazing experience for the students and everyone gets something out of it,” Surles-Law said.

The Science Education team scheduled and held educational lectures, put together engaging seminar panels and conducted pulse surveys to keep track of students’ overall well-being and engagement.

“Everything we do in Science Education focuses on the well-being of our participants, so we check in,” said Surles-Law. “We’ve been able to keep a pulse on the student experience based on a variety of program offerings. As we move towards deliverables, we can gauge stress and anxiety around what’s being asked of them. It’s also an opportunity to share wins and joy in addition to concerns, so that we can make sure that everyone gets the most out of the programs.”

Delivering Science in the Summer

The students’ projects ranged from writing computer code, to conducting simulations of high-energy photons, to specific engineering challenges related to the Electron-Ion Collider. All students in the programs were responsible for completing an abstract, a paper and a poster on their individual projects.

In the past, the internships would end with one big poster session, where the students would share their projects with the lab community. This year, the summer interns made two presentations. They shared a brief presentation on their individual projects halfway through the summer programs in a virtual meeting that included all students and all mentors. At the end of the programs, the students recorded a 5-7 minute poster presentation video for a final seminar towhich the entire Jefferson Lab community was invited. Each video was played, and the students were available virtually to answer questions after their video.

The student presentations served as a way to bring the lab community together, even as most of the Jefferson Lab community continues to work off-campus.

“We’ve had a lot of feedback that staff learned more about what was happening just down the hall from these virtual meetings,” shared Dio.

Looking to the Future

A substantial fringe benefit of integrating more technology into the summer internship program is that the Science Education team has expanded its technical capabilities to better enable project requirements.

“We have definitely improved our processes for getting deliverables in and out,” shared Surles-Law. “We are taking advantage of our technical resources in a much more efficient and effective manner, and we will be taking that with us.”

The team expects to be able to continue to capitalize on these new capabilities and benefit from them going forward.

Surles-Law said, “I am looking forward to putting these new lessons to work in the future, where perhaps we will have multiple styles of offerings, but we’ll never lose that in-person feel and spirit.”

By Jessica Bedenbaugh

Contact: Kandice Carter, Jefferson Lab Communications Office, 757-269-7263, kcarter@jlab.org

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

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Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, a joint venture of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. and PAE, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’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 https://energy.gov/science.