Frances Zengotita: My summer research at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Name: Frances Zengotita

Major: Chemistry and English

Where did you intern? Los Alamos National Laboratory Field Office, Carlsbad, New Mexico ACRSP (Actinide Chemistry and Repository Science)

What did you do there? How did you get your internship?

At Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), I researched the role of Chromohalobacter (a bacterium that can thrive in high salt concentrations) and its potential effect on the transportation of hazardous material in the environment.

I was awarded the internship by the Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management (DOE-EM) through the FIU DOE Fellows Program that is housed within the Applied Research Center.

Additionally, as an FIU McNair Fellow the program guided and supported me by preparing me for research via workshops (GRE, NSF proposals, how to apply for graduate school, how to write research reports) and requiring weekly reports to ensure that I was on track.

What projects did you work on?

My project was for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which is a deep geologic repository that handles and disposes of radioactive waste that was created during World War II and the Cold War.

How did your internship connect back to your coursework?

The internship was related to my undergraduate coursework due to its focus on environmental chemistry. At FIU, I research environmental remediation for nuclear waste under two fellowships (Department of Energy Environmental Management Fellowship and the Ronald E. McNair Fellowship).

What was the coolest thing that happened during your internship?

Since I am a dual degree student in chemistry and English, I have not taken any biology related courses. During this internship, my project utilized a bacterium that can live in high concentrations of salt. Thanks to the LANL microbiologist, Dr. Juliet Swanson, I was able to understand the behaviors of the bacterium in terms of toxicity and mobility. Although I did not grow the microbes, I was able to monitor the microbial concentrations and measure the toxicity of the microbes to cesium prior to using them in my experiments to study transport.

What did you like most about your experience?

I learned a great deal from my summer mentors, Dr. Timothy Dittrich and Dr. Hilary Emerson, who helped me build my experiments and guided me through the experimental procedures, data collection, and analysis. I would like to thank Dr. Donald Reed (our collaborator) for making this entire summer experience possible and helping me adjust to a professional environment (training, group meetings, presentations).

What did you learn about yourself?

In a few words, I came to the realization that I want to pursue a doctorate degree in chemistry. The lab experience showed that I was fully capable of performing under stressful situations. Moreover, I learned that I shine when I was given the ability to manage my experiments and analyze the collected data.

How did the position increase your professional confidence?

Dr. Dittrich and Dr. Emerson, they helped me understand my experiments and motivated me throughout my entire internship. Besides guiding me through the experimental setup and data analysis, they supported me when there were difficult moments. They gave me advice whenever I struggled and provided the confidence to present, work and analyze things independently. The entire LANL-ACRSP group motivated me academically and personally. The internship helped my professional career by introducing me to weekly meetings, reports and presentations (poster and oral) which prepared me for graduate school.

The McNair Program has given me the opportunity to present my summer research at various nationals conferences. I was also given the opportunity to meet with lawmakers in Washington, D.C, to discuss the importance of funding higher education and nuclear research.

How did you expand your professional network?

This experience helped me expand my professional network by introducing me to top-tier scientists in the laboratory that worked in major-related concentrations that interested me.

I was able to build a professional bond with the scientists that worked at LANL-ACRSP. Dr. Reed, Dr. Juliet Swanson and Dr. Dittrich helped me grow as an individual and a student scientist. In a team effort, I learned the importance of weekly meetings to share results, explain my experiments through presentations, and training.

Through the national conferences that the FIU McNair Program has funded, I have been able to meet world-class faculty who are making significant strides in nuclear research. I have also been granted the opportunity to travel and meet with graduate schools nationwide with the McNair Program, which has significantly increased my exposure to current graduate students and my graduate school options.

I am very appreciative for the internship opportunity that I was awarded by the DOE-EM (DOE Fellows Program) at FIU Applied Research Center.

How did it help you prove yourself in the “real-world?”

This helped me work in a professional setting and to practice time management. The laboratory had strict rules, trainings and schedules that everyone had to follow. It provided strict deadlines for public presentations and data analysis.

What advice do you have for those beginning the internship process?

Being a part of a group of peers who have the same goal has been life changing. I suggest looking into organizations that can propel you and continuously push you. For me, it is the FIU McNair Program, my cohort and my faculty mentors. Always follow deadlines and be professional and prompt. The collaborators and mentors are understanding of any circumstances you struggle with and will be there for you if you need help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help because they went through similar experiences when they were younger, and, as such, they understand that certain situations happen. Take it easy, have fun, learn and build mutual connections. It will be worthwhile to have a mentor from your internship to write you letters of recommendations for graduate school!