January 7, 2015
Senior chemistry and mathematics major Stephanie Sanders, a 2014-2015 Goldwater Scholar, recently completed an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Shortly before the end of her off-campus experience, she shared a few thoughts about her research, lab work in general, and what lies ahead—both in her last semester and after Albion.
During my time at Albion I have gained numerous research experiences, from an Albion College FURSCA project in Ireland, to a summer fellowship at the University of Wisconsin and an internship at BASF. Now, I'm doing an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. I want to earn a doctorate in chemistry and this gives me another invaluable research experience with a national laboratory.
I am working in the Geochemistry and Interfacial Sciences Group, which is part of the Chemical Science Division at ORNL. Our lab is setting up a high pressure system connected to a magnetic suspension balance to measure adsorption of gases, such as propane, to porous substrates. This helps improve the effectiveness and efficiency of natural gas extraction.
At the end of my internship, I will also help with a neutron scattering experiment. Neutron experiments are one of the things ORNL is famous for, so it's pretty cool that I get to participate. Our experiment also studied gas adsorption, which provides information to improve natural gas recovery.
At ORNL, I work about 40 hours a week on my research project and take two courses on top of it. I spend a lot less of my time doing homework at night, but am constantly working during the day. It has given me a better understanding of what my schedule will be like in the future, and I really love spending all day in the chemistry lab so it has worked out great for me!
Doing research day in and day out is sometimes frustrating and challenging. There are so many little things that can go wrong or small variables you can't control or understand. For instance, the magnetic coupling system in the balance I was using was constantly not behaving properly; screws had to be in the exactly correct place or the magnets failed. It seems like every time you answer one question, you have five new ones. It's frustrating, but solving the problems, learning new things, and having more questions is what also makes science fun!
Beyond the lab work, I also am really enjoying the national laboratory setting. It feels kind of like a mix between academic research and industrial research. There is an emphasis on fundamental scientific research, as well as proprietary research. The partnerships with companies result in industrial products and processes. ORNL is run similar to a business, but emphasizes fundamental research more than an actual business.
We also don't spend all our time in our lab; as part of our weekly seminars, I've seen the Graphite Reactor, the High Flux Isotope Reactor, the biofuels greenhouse, the Spallation Neutron Source, and the supercomputers. If you like science, it's a blast! I also learned to row, played volleyball, did some fantastic hiking, and even went to the Tennessee football game with our entire program.
With just one semester left on campus, I find myself thinking of Albion less as a place I will always want to be and more of a place I was happy to call home for a while. It is hard to explain, but I feel as if this semester away from Albion has prepared me to want to leave for new opportunities for the future. I am excited to return to Albion for one last semester in the spring, but I am also excited to enter the next stage of my life, taking the lessons I have learned from Albion with me.