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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

STEM inspiration leads Argonne intern on electrical engineering path

ACT-SO and national laboratories participate in the making of a scientist.

Bryce Smith’s career in science began in his parents’ basement where, as a grade-schooler, he would spend his afternoons building elaborate model rollercoasters.

I loved being able to work with my hands, to encounter problems and to find a way around them,” Smith said. That’s what started this whole process.”

Smith spent the summer of 2018 as an intern at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory working in the Physics division with the Technical Support Group, helping to update hardware and software for the Gammasphere experiment at the Argonne Tandem Linear Accelerator System (ATLAS), a DOE Office of Science User Facility for nuclear physics research.  

Celebrating Bryce’s accomplishments is a fitting tribute to those DOE national lab scientists and engineers who voluntarily spend nights and weekends coaching and mentoring the Argonne/ACT-SO High School Research Program students starting in high school through matriculation to graduate school. We could not be prouder of Bryce.” — Maria Curry-Nkansah, chief operations officer of Argonne’s Physical Sciences and Engineering directorate.

But this wasn’t Smith’s first experience with the national laboratory system. He’s been participating in DOE-sponsored programs for several years, starting when he was a sophomore at Metea Valley High School in Aurora (May through August 2012). It was then that he applied for a competitive internship at DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory through the TARGET Program. At Fermilab, Smith worked with Arden Warner (SC Linac Department) in Fermilab’s Accelerator division.

The experience shaped his life.

It was mind-blowing,” Smith said of the laboratory. I was in awe. I couldn’t completely comprehend what they were doing with particle physics but I was intrigued by all of the hardware on site and by the ingenuity it took to build these complex machines. I wanted to know more.”

Smith spent his senior year of high school learning about the scientific method through his participation in the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) High School Research Program, designed to recruit, stimulate and encourage high academic and cultural achievement among African-American youth.

The renowned program allowed Smith to spend a year dissecting the mathematics behind the Rubik’s cube under the guidance of Argonne researchers. He received two gold medals for his work.

This helped me gain confidence in my scientific abilities as I started the process of becoming an engineer,” Smith said. It was encouraging to have this early win.”

It was a victory for the national laboratories as well. 

When Argonne started the partnership in 2013 with the DuPage County ACT-SO Chapter, we had a clear vision of how our nine-month high school research program would build a strong, resilient science, technology, engineering and mathematics pipeline of confident, college-ready, high-achieving African American youth — eventually culminating in supportive college internships at Argonne and other DOE national labs,” said Maria Curry-Nkansah, chief operations officer of Argonne’s Physical Sciences and Engineering directorate. Bryce is living proof that this approach works.”

Smith, who went on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, returned to Fermilab as an intern after his freshman year of college (May–August 2015) as part of Fermilab’s Summer Internships in Science and Technology Program. He worked for Vic Scarpine (Engineering, Instrumentation, Group 2), once again in the Accelerator division, testing a detector that would allow scientists a better understanding of the shape of the beam in the particle accelerator.

He went on to intern at Argonne after his sophomore year of college (May-August 2016), as part of the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program, sponsored by DOE’s Office of Science. Here, he worked with Trevor Crain and Jon Moore in the EcoCAR 3 group of the Energy Systems division. EcoCAR 3 was DOE’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition, in which college teams competed to redesign a vehicle using emerging automotive technologies while maintaining mileage and performance standards. Smith helped to develop a camera system to identify stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles.

It was exciting because it was a real-world application, a technology that was becoming increasingly popular,” he said.

After his junior year of college (June-August 2017), Smith interned at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado, again under the auspices of the SULI program. At NREL, Smith worked with Matthew Reese in the Physics division on creating a computer program to allow scientists to run various stability tests on solar cells, with the goal of boosting their efficiency.

In his most recent national laboratory experience at ATLAS, Smith contributed to the Gammasphere experiment, which detects gamma rays emitted from atomic nuclei as they spin and cool after nuclear reactions. These reactions occur in the ATLAS facility, which accelerates particle beams into targets of selected materials; they are used to study both the origins of heavy elements and models of stellar processes from nuclear astrophysics.

The more we know about these reactions, the better our understanding of nuclear structure,” said Smith, who began his graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon last fall. The work we did last summer will improve the results we gather from this type of experimentation.”

John T. Anderson, principal electronics engineer in the Physics division at Argonne, said Smith has thrived during his time at the laboratory.

He has been most willing to work on tasks that require research and study prior to action, clearly displaying the lifelong learner’ viewpoint that is the mark of a successful scientist,” said Anderson.

Curry-Nkansah said Argonne looks forward to Smith’s future academic and professional success. Celebrating Bryce’s accomplishments is a fitting tribute to those DOE national lab scientists and engineers who voluntarily spend nights and weekends coaching and mentoring the Argonne/ACT-SO High School Research Program students starting in high school through matriculation to graduate school,” she said. We could not be prouder of Bryce.”

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.