DOE Fellows: Turning students into scientists

Cleaning up the nation’s hazardous nuclear energy sites is complex, technically challenging work that requires specialized skills. Yet leaders of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, which leads those efforts, are growing concerned: Some 80 percent of the employees with those skills will approach retirement in the next 10 years.

A partnership between FIU and the federal agency is training a new generation of nuclear scientists and engineers – and working to diversify the field with under-represented minorities.

Established in 2007, the DOE-FIU Science and Technology Workforce Development Program at FIU’s Applied Research Center creates a “pipeline” of minority professionals specifically trained and mentored to join the workforce in existing and emerging areas of need. 

“We started with a class of 20 FIU minority STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students,” says Leonel Lagos, director of the DOE fellows program at FIU. “I told them. ‘You’ll put knowledge into practice and do hands-on research.’ ”

Fellows learn through mentoring, fieldwork and traditional coursework.

“This program was very important to me,” says Rosa Ramirez, a 2008 FIU biomedical engineering graduate who now works in the DOE-EM’s Office of Technology Innovation and Development in Washington, D.C. “I felt very well prepared when I got here, and confidence is the key. I could do the job because I was given the tools.”

Current FIU fellows are researching better ways to identify and dispose of radioactive waste.

The U.S. government “started the research to develop the atomic bomb,” notes Lagos, so “it’s a very big (environmental) footprint that was made in the development of nuclear weapons” in the United States.

That makes researching the scope of contamination, fixing it and creating ways to improve the safety of nuclear energy programs – now and in the future – critical for the United States. So the fellows are performing research aimed at remediating contaminated soil, groundwater, equipment and reactors. They fielded queries during Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011.

At FIU “we are helping by developing new technologies to clean up the waste,” Lagos says. “It’s a national security issue, too. There’s plutonium and uranium at these sites that was produced and needs to be disposed of in the proper way so it doesn’t get into anyone else’s hands.”

Since its inception, the program has inducted 54 fellows. They have gone on to federal agencies including DOE and NASA, to private contractors, and to pursue master’s or doctoral degrees.

“Our measurement of success is how many students are willing to go into environmental management once they finish their education,” regardless of whether it is at a federal agency or in the private sector, says Ines Triay, former assistant secretary for environmental management at DOE and a visiting scholar at FIU’s Applied Research Center.

“We are having a high success rate at FIU,” she says. “Over 95 percent of the students want to go into environmental management. They become enamored, become passionate about solving the challenges.”