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First Person

NIST Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship

By Bill Flynn

Photo: Jeff Watts

Photo: Jeff Watts

I heard about the eleven-week NIST Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program from friends who had participated in previous years. I managed to meet the mid-February application deadline and received my acceptance about a month later. There are 9 different laboratories on the NIST Gaithersburg campus that accept SURF students and I was assigned to work with Dr. William Ratcliff at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR). A few weeks later, he emailed me, telling me to brush up on the computer language Python and review quantum mechanical ladder operator algebra. Luckily I knew some programming and was just about to take my Quantum Mechanics final.

So at the end of May, I sublet my room, threw my belongings into a storage unit and headed off to the hotel in Gaithersburg where about 120 other SURF students were staying for the summer. Some students came from as far as California and Puerto Rico.

On our first day, we all were fingerprinted, given badges, and sent off to meet our advisors. Since the NCNR is extra-secure, so my officemates and I also attended a radiation training orientation that granted us another badge needed to enter our building. Why? The NCNR is home to a 20 megawatt nuclear reactor used to produce neutrons that are used to conduct experiments. Besides needing a special badge to get in, this also meant we needed to wear sensitive gadgets that measure exposure to radiation. Despite all the fuss, it is a very safe place to work. By the end of the summer I only experienced about one fifth of the maximum radiation dose a pregnant woman is medically advised to experience in one week.

I came to really appreciate and enjoy the work I was doing – making software researchers can use to model their experiments in the neutron beam. I worked closely with a previous SURFer who came back as an employee and had started work on the same project the previous year. Although my background is in physics and mathematics, some of the other students in my office were studying subjects ranging from medical physics and bio-engineering to mechanical engineering and computer science.

At the end of the summer, everyone put together a 15-20 minute presentation about their project and presented it to the entire NIST community. This not only gave me another opportunity to present in front of others, but it let me see the variety of work going on throughout the campus. Students worked on anything from studying how fire burns through buildings to different autonomous robotic mapping techniques to developing better solar cells to imaging the inner workings of fuel cells. But it didn't end there: NIST even paid for me to go to Pasadena, California, to work with Python developers at a computing conference after the summer program ended, which was awesome.

Overall it was a great experience – so much so that I wanted to finish up my project in the form of an internship during the next fall semester. I really have gained insight into what science is like outside of academia and was able to see what the cutting edge of my field looks like. It taught me skills that will prove invaluable when I go to graduate school and I encourage everyone who has the opportunity to participate in a summer research experience like this; you'll make new friends, learn new things, and get to see things you likely would never see anywhere else.