Los Alamos National Laboratory provides rare research opportunity for Albion student

Albion College senior Paige McDowell was immersed in real-world geology research at the storied Los Alamos National Laboratory.

October 6, 2023

Paige McDowell watches Dr. Strzelecki work in the lab.
McDowell works with rare earth elements in the lab
A close of up McDowell working on elements
Paige McDowell with Dr. Strzelecki and Dr. Menold at Los Alamos
McDowell doing field work with coal samples
Paige McDowell and Dr. Carrie Menold together.

While summer movie crowds dove into the genesis of the atom bomb with “Oppenheimer,” Albion College senior Paige McDowell was immersed in real-world geology research at the storied Los Alamos National Laboratory, LANL.

A connection from her faculty advisor, Dr. Carrie Menold, enabled the geology major to intern at the New Mexico facility, now one of 16 research and development laboratories of the U.S. Department of Energy. McDowell worked on two projects that provided invaluable hands-on learning opportunities – and the chance to work with Albion alumnus Dr. Andrew Strzelecki, ’18, who is completing his post-doctoral research project at LANL.

“When Andrew reached out, this seemed like a really good opportunity to do research at a bigger scale,” McDowell said. “I think the combination of it being a very beautiful area with lots of outdoor activities as well as having the funds and resources to do some really high-tech and complicated research really drew me in.”

As an intern with the Radionuclide Geochemistry Team, McDowell spent time in Wyoming collecting coal samples to find rare earth elements, or REEs. The REEs found in the coal are sought-after in emerging renewable energy technologies, such as solar power and wind, and in low-carbon transportation, such as electric cars. While at LANL, McDowell worked on a project that utilizes machine learning and chemostratigraphy – or how chemistry varies with deposition – to find correlations between major elements and REEs in coal deposits.

“It was a pleasure having Paige on this project over the summer,” said Katharine Rose, who was part of the research team. “She did not mind getting her hands dirty with coal to collect good elemental data and was also eager to get to work. 

“It was rewarding to be able to mentor a sharp mind like Paige on this research. I hope she can carry forward some of her research skills to the next adventure in her academic career.” 

McDowell also worked alongside Strzelecki, who also studied geology at Albion and holds the Harold Agnew National Security Postdoctoral Fellowship at LANL. His research is probing the effects of iron impurities on the phase stability relations of plutonium-uranium-gallium intermetallic compounds. 

To do this, McDowell helped Strzelecki prepare metallic uranium samples in an inert atmosphere chamber so they could determine the heat effect of dissolving the uranium into gallium at 700°C. These measurements will be used in the future thermodynamic derivations of other uranium-gallium-iron intermetallics.

“It was an awesome experience for me, an alumnus of Albion College, to be able to work with Paige and have her here in the Radiogeochemistry office this summer,” Strzelecki noted. “The data she helped me collect will be important in determining how iron impurities impact various alloys, which are used in both national security and nuclear power applications. 

“Paige was a pleasure to work with and has a very bright future ahead of her. I am excited to watch where she goes after graduation.”

McDowell said opportunities like this are what led her to Albion.

“At Albion, students get the opportunity to interact more closely with faculty members and create connections,” McDowell said. “This kind of research is usually purely for graduate students, and undergraduate students don’t have these kinds of options. 

“Here at Albion, we can do a lot of that work. I was able to interact with people from all over the world, and it was a really good time.”

That’s music to the ears of Menold, a geochemist who is a professor and chair of the Earth and Environment Department at Albion.

“Our department has a research or experiential learning requirement for all our students, who often do more than one,” Menold explained. “Paige is a great case in point – she’s working on a senior thesis with me this year and just completed this very cool research internship.

“In today’s marketplace, students need to have problem-solving, critical thinking and soft skills that are best honed on experiential projects with real-world applications. We think research, internship and community-based projects enhance what is happening in the classroom.”

Menold traces Albion’s connection with LANL to Paul Dixon, ’83, a geology alumnus who began his long, impressive career at LANL as a post-doctoral researcher. When Dixon returned to campus in 2014 to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award, he told the department about the internship opportunities at LANL. 

Albion College has sent five interns to LANL since that time – Strzelecki was the third and McDowell the fifth. 

“We are always delighted when we can engage with the broader Albion and Earth and Environment community,” Menold said. “Our alumni are doing incredible things. Strong connections with them open up world-class opportunities for our students, like Paige had this summer.”