Henrietta Coleman stood knee-deep in the murky waters of the Savannah river, dressed in chest-high waders. She watched the water moccasin swim lazily beside her. The snake swam so close she could see dark brown patterns on its curving body.
When she first arrived to intern at Savannah River Site, Aiken, SC, she'd been required to watch a video about the site's poisonous snakes and plants. But it's one thing to watch the dangers on video--to step into the swamp and meet a snake is another. Still, she managed to stay calm. As instructed, she remained quiet, motionless, and the snake swam on its way. She exhaled and finished her work.(Above, Henrietta Coleman and Thomas Shuler monitor water
Henrietta, a mathematics graduate student at South Carolina State
University in Orangeburg, S.C., is one of more than 60 students from
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) who've participated in
the internship program since SRS began providing it in 1996. Although
her professor had briefed her about the internship program last year,
telling her that she'd be working in labs as well as in the field taking
samples of lake and swamp water, she still wasn't quite sure what to
expect when she arrived.
"All I'd heard about the site was
that it was the bomb plant. That's what everybody called it," she said
of the nearly fifty-year-old U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) facility.
(SRS is known mainly for its historic production of tritium and
plutonium for national defense. It was through these production
processes that parts of the 312-square-mile site became
Today, most of SRS is forest and serves as a unique refuge for
nearly 50 endangered or sensitive species. Additionally, despite being
called "the bomb plant," the site is also a National Environmental
Research Park, ideal for studying the environmental sciences.
"I found out about the internship through flyers in our science
building," said Henrietta, whose undergraduate major was biology. She
learned more when Professor John Williams told her about the work.
"He told me what the project was and what he would expect of me. They
were conducting the phytoplankton study at the time, mainly microscopic
work. At that point I didn't go out into the field much."
The paid internships are made possible under the University Research
Programs (URP), working through HBCUs from Georgia, North Carolina and
South Carolina, and is funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant
through its SRS Operations Office. URP generates opportunities for HBCU
students majoring in or considering the environmental sciences,
education, social work, and even marketing to gain hands-on experience
in the real workforce. Interns come from schools such as Henrietta's -
South Carolina State; Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College,
Atlanta, GA; North Carolina Agricultural and Technology State
University, Greensboro, N.C; and Paine College, Augusta, GA.
The program gives students the chance to work with site professionals
and college professors in small groups, creating mentoring
opportunities. This potential isn't lost on Ron Morgan, a senior biology
major at South Carolina State. "Corporate-wise, I thought it was a good
opportunity for meeting people. Who knows? Maybe five years down the
line, one of the companies out here might even think about hiring
Henrietta, (pictured at left with Professor
John Williams, Thomas Shuler and Ron Morgan) who wants to be a
high-school math and science teacher, appreciates the presence of
professors, site engineers and scientists. "Their being out in the
field with us makes me think that what we're doing is something
important. I'm learning a lot. I didn't know much about environmental
science before I started this internship."
Professor Williams said Henrietta's unfamiliarity with the
environmental sciences is common among HBCU students. "Usually there is
not enough funding for us to have the resources to expose our students
to this field. But in this kind of program we get to take them out and
they can get hands-on experience related to what we've taught them in
"Yeah," said Ron, "I'd never been out in a swamp. It was my first
time putting class work into practice." He learned first-hand of the
surprises that lurk in swamps when he took a step forward and found
himself thigh deep in mud. "All I could think was 'don't let there be a
snake now, because I can't run!'"
However, despite his and Henrietta's adventures, the students are
made constantly aware of remaining safe. "There is definitely an
emphasis on safety. Besides wearing regular safety gear like headgear,
waders, snakeboots and eye protection, they express deep concern about
our wearing gloves in the water. Also, consumption of food or
drink in the working area is not allowed because of the potential
contaminants in the water and at the work sites. Even though the water
is at drinking water standards, they don't want anyone taking
Then there is the issue of security. Thomas Schuler, a senior at
South Carolina State, who serves in the Coast Guard Reserves said, "When
I got here I was thinking, what's the big deal down here? The reactors?
Where are they? I had never seen security like this. Ron (who serves in
the Army Reserves) and I are both in the military, and the security on
the bases we've been on is not anywhere close to being this tight. I
wonder what it would be like if the reactors were still running?"
The awe of security aside, students also have the chance to work with
innovative technologies. Victor Ibeanusi, Ph.D., an associate professor
at Spelman, had his first research project with SRS in 1994 and sees
such work as one of the advantages of HBCUs sending students to SRS.
This fiscal year will be the fourth year that he's worked at the site
and he's happy to have the opportunity to demonstrate his own research
and expose his students to scientific breakthroughs. "The purpose of our
work is to use a microbial system that I patented. This uses specific
bacterial strains that we have patented as a microbial system. The
strains have been effective in detoxifying heavy metals from waste water
such as coal pile runoffs and acid mine drainage," said Ibeanusi, a
native of Nigeria and Director of the Environmental Program at
An average of five students work with him at the college, he said,
and he usually brings two at a time with him when he comes to SRS.
"Working with students at the site is very exciting. One of my students,
who has worked with me over the years, feels it's awesome. Her work at
SRS is one of the factors that influenced her to continue her work in
the environmental sciences." Ibeanusi feels her experience with SRS is
what encouraged the student to go on to graduate school. "She's applying
for her Ph.D. now," he said.
Speaking as a scientist Ibeanusi said, "To go out into the field and
see similar work being duplicated is inspiring. The fieldwork is
wonderful, and we appreciate the opportunity. It has really helped us to
advance our work. We wouldn't have had the opportunity to work on the
effectiveness of the microbial system without the help of the DOE. So as
a scientist it has been quite helpful because we would have had
difficulty getting a large-scale demonstration outside the DOE. It has
definitely helped advance our research efforts."
Another advantage noted by Professor Williams of
South Carolina State is the preparation the internship gives students to
do independent research. (At left, Professor Williams discusses
water sampling process while students set up sampling equipment.)
"One of our goals is to bring interns up to the point where they
have enough experience and develop enough skills and confidence with
different technologies that they can be like Henrietta. I can give her a
general outline of our work objectives, and she is now skilled enough
with quality assurance and aspects of it and the populations' protocol
that she can get into the operations or measurements and know enough to
tell whether something is not looking right. She always gets back with
me and we double-check, but the idea is to move our students up to a
level of having independent research skills. That's the bridge between
undergraduate level work and graduate level."
The DOE-Savannah River Operations Office is working with HBCU
students through another program as well: environmental science courses
for undergraduate students at the Savannah River Field Station. Started
by Dr. Ambrose Anoruo - a professor at South Carolina State - the field
station is a collaboration of 26 educational institutions, the DOE-SR
Operations Office, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of
Natural Resources, Bechtel Savannah River Inc., Westinghouse Savannah
River Company, and Weyerhaeuser Company, as well as the
Savannah River Technology Center and the Savannah River Ecology
Laboratory. Comprised of two classrooms and two laboratories, the field
station program allows students, who are mainly from HBCUs, take
environmental science courses each summer and apply what they've learned
in the field. "We want to advance the knowledge of minority students in
the environmental, agricultural, natural and ecological sciences. Most
HBCU students in natural sciences are focusing on getting into medical
school, but they can't all be accepted," said Anoruo.
Leslie Johnson, a rising junior at Florida A&M University, whose
advisor nudged her toward biotechnology, has met students like this.
"They don't even consider microbiology or environmental science." One of
the students whose focus is geered more toward research, she was
researching the effects of cesium, a soft, highly reactive metal, on
plants. "Next month I'll be in class, but I really enjoy research.
Everything is new and intriguing."
Anthony Morris, a rising senior from Livingstone College, Salisbury,
NC, and a biology major added, "This program can only get bigger. There
are 115 biology majors at my school. I'm the only one who's considering
environmental science. Everybody can't be a doctor."
Anoruo is proud of the program in general. In February 1999, he was
awarded Vice President Al Gore's Hammer Award for cultivating the
cost-saving project. The students are learning and performing
regulatory-required work for less money than the government would
normally spend. And he is proud of the program in particular for its
providing training to minorities in an area where they are
underrepresented. "We are training students to fill a niche that
minorities have not been seen in for a long time. We are preparing them
for jobs with government and industry." The staff even goes so far as
teaching students how to fill out Federal Government job applications
and to do resumes.
In addition, like Ibeanusi and Williams, Anoruo boasts that the
program is furthering the chances of minorities entering graduate
school. "I have one student who has gone on to grad school and another
who now has grad school offers from Princeton and Harvard."
"We have worked hard at developing partnerships with many HBCUs
because it helps us develop a pipeline of people who have the skills
we'll be looking for in the future," said Ambrose Schwallie, president
of the Westinghouse Savannah River Company (which operates the site for
DOE). "It's good for us, and it's good for the students - they get
experience they wouldn't get anywhere else. Not to mention the skills
they acquire here that are needed in today's economy."
(At left, Thomas Shuler collects water sample
from SRS stream.) These are the kinds of reports Tania
Patterson-Smith likes to hear. A manager in the DOE Environmental
Restoration Division, Smith was hired by the DOE after interning through
a different program. She is, therefore, qualified to attest first-hand
that the experience is invaluable for students. Furthermore, as an
African American working in the DOE, she is pleased with the inclusion
of HBCUs in the environmental field. "This program is just one example
of the DOE's overall commitment to inclusion and diversity in the
workforce. I think the students' presence enhances the work dynamic, not
just because of their cultural background, but also because of their
youth, vigor and enthusiasm for the work. It's a win-win collaboration.
The students get to work with our scientists, like those at Savannah
River Technology Center, and develop mentoring relationships.
Additionally, the site benefits from the brain power at the
universities," she said, noting that Ibeanusi had just been named a
Fulbright scholar and that there are Savannah River Technology Center
scientists known around the world for their work at SRS.
Anoruo echoed Smith's comments. "We've got the best scientists
working with the students. Today one of them is taking the students to
look at the ecological habitats.
"This whole experience is good for them. You tell them something in
class. They hear theories, and then they go out in the field and see
what it is in the real world, and they say, 'Oh, yes! That's what it is.
I see now."
Anthony agrees and values his experience. "I had three different
intern offers, but I took this one because no one else offers undergrads
the chance for hands-on experience and the courses. There's nothing like
When this article was first published through Black Collegian Magazine, Nordette Adams (formerly Lawrence) was a writer assigned to Westinghouse
Savannah River Company's Environmental Restoration Division at the
Savannah River Site.
If you are currently a student at an HBCU and would like to learn
more about this internship, please check with your career development
office. If your career development office is unaware of this program,
have the administrator to contact:
Department of Energy-Savannah River
University Research Programs
June 2005 Update Note from Nordette Adams:
If you're looking for an additional source
of information on Department of Energy,
student internships and fellowships, check ORISE
Central Savannah River Area College Night
An annual event
What are your thoughts on this article? I'd love to hear
from you! Please email me with your questions, comments or