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Internships: Could They Work for You?

Savannah River Site Provides Unique Hands-on Experience
For Students in the Field of Environmental Science

By Nordette Adams (Lawrence)

Coleman and ShulerHenrietta 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 sampling results.)

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 contaminated.)

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 me."

scsustudents.jpg (68352 bytes)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 the classroom."

"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 chances."

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 Spelman.

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."

Savannah River SiteAnother 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."

Shuler(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 it."

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 Operations Office
University Research Programs
(803) 725-6211

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 concerns.

[Augusta Magazine article: "Augusta's Endangered Forest"]

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Copyright Nordette Adams