Summer Students’ Sayonara

There wasn’t a seat left in the house at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Berkner Hall auditorium during the closing ceremony for this summer’s educational programs.

2011 summer interns

BNL’s 2011 summer students

Approximately 300 students, along with their mentors (who include professors from various institutions and Brookhaven scientists) gathered last Thursday for a recap of the whirlwind of activity that characterized their summer at the Lab. Remarks by Deputy Laboratory Director Doon Gibbs and Department of Energy Site Manager Michael Holland kicked off the ceremony before Cornelius Murphy, president of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry — who was, himself, once a BNL summer student — gave the keynote address.

Compared to Brookhaven’s approximately 3,000 working scientists, 300 students might seem like a relatively small population, but as Assistant Laboratory Director for Policy and Strategic Planning Patrick Looney mentioned in remarks at the closing ceremony, their presence has a palpable effect on the BNL community.

“You can detect when the students show up here, because you can really feel their energy across the Lab,” Looney said.

The students ranged in age and level of education from high school students first exploring a penchant for science to graduate students about to embark on scientific careers.

During their 10-week stay at BNL, the summer students, mostly undergraduates, collaborated with Brookhaven scientists as they prepared and performed experiments. A true symbiotic partnership, the researchers also mentored students while they conducted studies of their own, and then assisted them with their analyses. At the end of the summer, those students who carried out research projects wrote papers detailing their findings and created posters to represent their work.

In the two days of presentations and poster sessions that preceded the closing ceremony, topics ran the gambit of research initiatives at the Lab. More than 200 posters in the fields of chemistry, biology, physics, and engineering were on display in Berkner Hall. Research topics ranged from superconducting magnet design to characterizing bacteria found in local soil.

Looney spoke to students about the unique enrichment they receive during their time at Brookhaven.

“After completing your research projects,” he said, “many of you have to get up in front of an audience and explain what you did and how you did it. That’s not something every summer research program builds into their curriculum — and you exhibit a real depth of knowledge in these presentations. No one gives talks like the ones I heard this morning without having learned something substantial while they were here.”

Many of the college students who come to Brookhaven for the summer continue the work they started here at their home institutions. But even those who don’t have a university lab to go home to, like the students in the High School Research Program (HSRP), still have the opportunity to get a head start on scientific careers while at the Lab.

Scott Bronson, director of the HSRP, explains: “Long Island has some of the best science and math students in the U.S. HSRP allows these top students to experience real discovery early in their academic careers. It can often be these experiences that inspire them to continue on to a career in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields. Many of our HSRP students come back as SULI [Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship] students and several have gone on to enter Ph.D. programs in the physical sciences. This program has been successful in large part due to BNL’s extremely generous and dedicated scientific staff, as mentoring a high school student is a serious commitment.”

Like most end-of-year academic rituals, speakers at the closing ceremony extolled students both for being selected to study at Brookhaven and for the high quality of the work they did while they were here.

Also in line with traditional closing remarks, keynote speaker Samuel Stanley, Jr., president of Stony Brook University, illuminated some of the meaningful contributions and discoveries this class of students might someday make to guide the future of our country.

Yet Stanley diverged from any predictable “send-off” script by pinning these often highly generalized predictions to a real situation that faces us today — the role these students will play in ameliorating the precarious state of the STEM fields in the United States.

“Our national laboratory system is one of the United States’ greatest treasures,” Stanley said. “Programs like this one at Brookhaven are growing in importance because they help us train the scientists of the future — scientists who can help relay the importance of their research to Congress, which sometimes fails to recognize the benefits that the research being done today will have years down the road. We need to do everything in our power to prevent the crippling of our labs.”

Stanley concluded the ceremony’s keynote speech by exhorting Brookhaven’s 2011 summer students: “You are now ambassadors,” he said. “Do not be silent in this debate.”

Tags: education

2011-2528  |  INT/EXT  |  Newsroom