Alec Lancaster thought he was bound for a career as a university physicist. But a 10-week internship at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory gave him a different vision of the road ahead.
“I realized that I would much rather pursue a career in a national laboratory than I would a professorship,” he said. “The internship has definitely shaped my future.”
Lancaster, a theoretical physics and applied mathematics major at Loyola University Chicago, was part of the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program, funded by DOE’s Office of Science. He was one of some 400 interns in various programs working throughout Argonne.
“Even after a 10-week internship, I could see how my career would look working at a place like Argonne. And I think that’s an incredible insight into the scientific community and the process.” — Alec Lancaster, SULI Intern, Physics Division
Lancaster spent the summer in Argonne physicist Steve Kuhlmann’s research group looking for a specific kind of supernova in the data from the Dark Energy Survey (DES), an intensive 5-year probe of the southern sky. The ultimate goal of their research is to use known properties of those supernovae to determine the accelerated rate of expansion of the universe.
“We want our interns to be engaged in leading-edge science, to help them aspire to that level of research. And in this case, the research fit perfectly into one of Argonne’s strategic initiatives, the Universe as Our Laboratory,” said Kawtar Hafidi, associate laboratory director for Physical Sciences and Engineering. “We hope that this kind of high-profile exposure will draw students to Argonne for employment someday.”
With interests in theoretical astrophysics and cosmology, Lancaster said his work with Kuhlmann was pretty much a perfect project for him.
Lancaster helped to develop machine learning algorithms that run on Argonne’s supercomputers to sift through the enormous amounts of data generated by DES and categorize its supernovae. He started by deciphering the algorithms the researchers had already set up and then added his own touches.
Lancaster found this latitude to work independently exciting, particularly when Kuhlmann asked him to complete a small project as an addition to the machine learning code. “There was a lot of autonomy and a lot of room for my own creativity,” said Lancaster.
There was also a lot of expert help available, like Eve Kovacs, a scientist and computer specialist, who is part of DES and works with the group on computational matters.
“If I had a question on a specific aspect of supernovae, I could go down the hall and talk to somebody like Eve, who would tell me exactly what I need to know,” he said.
This sense of collaboration and inclusion extended to the weekly lunch meetings held by the interns and staff in Kuhlmann’s group to share results and talk shop.
“And when there were meetings with other people, the interns were invited to join, even if it was a little over our heads,” Lancaster said. “I think I can speak for a lot of the interns in saying that I never felt that I was ‘just’ an intern.”
Meridith Bruozas, manager of educational programs and outreach, concurs, “We expect a lot from our summer students, and they always rise to the challenge,” she says. “Through their summer internships, students gain access to cutting-edge resources and world-changing science projects that help them see how what they are learning in school can be applied to the real-world.”
When he was not working on the machine learning code, Lancaster spent time with retired physicist Harold Spinka on a more experimental project. They tested optical devices that will help obtain better measurements of dark energy by reducing the background noise on the telescopes that are observing distant supernovae.
“It was really great experiencing both the theoretical side and the experimental side, getting in the dirt and testing these things that are going to be used,” he said.
Perhaps the most eye-opening part of Lancaster’s internship was the experience of complete, daily immersion in research — something that isn’t possible as an undergraduate science student saddled with classes and homework. The experience brought him a new appreciation for a scientist’s life.
And he recommends it.
“At a student level, research is kind of an abstract idea,” he said. “A lot of undergraduates won’t be able to explain exactly what it looks like, but even after a 10-week internship, I could see how my career would look working at a place like Argonne. And I think that’s an incredible insight into the scientific community and the process. It was great.”
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.