Twenty summers of nuclear forensics and actinide science

Student presenting poster (Download Image)

At the 2016 LLNL student poster symposium, Austin Carter of the University of Michigan presents his Nuclear Forensics Summer Internship Program (NFSIP) research poster, Monte Carlo Modeling of Vast Area Detection for Experimental Radiochemistry (VADER) NIF Diagnostic Instrument.

In 1998, the Actinide Sciences Summer Program began training the next generation of actinide scientists (those who study elements 89 through 103 in an effort to identify the origin and behavior of nuclear materials). On August 5, this longstanding program, renamed the Nuclear Forensics Summer Internship Program (NFSIP) in 2008, bid farewell to its 20th class.

As a component of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory branch of the Glenn T. Seaborg Institute, NFSIP is focused on inviting a small number of students—graduate and senior undergraduate—to work closely with LLNL scientists on nuclear forensics, environmental radiochemistry, and heavy element discovery topics. Each student conducts mentored research and produces a poster while attending NFSIP; many go on to apply the research to their own graduate Ph.D. theses. Over the past 16 years, 30–40% of NFSIP alumni have returned to Livermore in some capacity. Thirteen have been hired as career scientists, and at least 15 have been hired as postdoctoral staff.

The original Actinide Sciences Summer Program was founded in response to a crisis. In the 1990s, American higher education was not producing enough nuclear science Ph.D.s to keep up with national security needs. Seaborg Institute founding director Darleane Hoffman and her colleagues raised awareness of the shortage, and in 1998, they succeeded in securing funding to begin the summer program. Over the past 20 years, the GTSI has hosted hundreds of students from over 70 colleges and universities.

Mark Sutton, now Deputy Division Leader for Operations for NACS, was a member of that first Actinide Sciences Summer Program. “The summer program was my first taste of LLNL, and there I realized that LLNL was for me,” he says. He returned in 2000 as a postdoctoral researcher.

Kerri Blobaum was in the 2000 class. Under the direction of Adam Schwartz—now director of the Ames Laboratory in Iowa—Blobaum was able to apply her materials science background to nuclear forensics. She credits her summer program experience as a “tryout” that eventually helped land her dream job. Today, she leads a team of LLNL materials characterization experts.

“Hearing from former students that being a summer student in nuclear forensics and environmental radiochemistry made a significant difference in their careers is a great feeling,” says Annie Kersting, the previous director of the Seaborg Institute and the current head of University Relations for the Laboratory.  Students seem to particularly value the one-on-one mentoring and the lecture series. Speakers have included “giants in the field of actinides,” according to Blobaum. Glenn Seaborg himself paid a visit to the inaugural class.

“I remember at the time being amazed that these highly respected scientists—whose journal articles I had read and admired as a grad student—were willing to spend the day with us,” says Sutton.

“The whole summer was very fast-paced and full of firsts,” says Teresa Baumer, a member of the 2017 class. “A major highlight was being able to complete a research project that involved carrying out experiments, analyzing data, and putting it all together in a poster—all over the course of one short summer. I learned many new techniques, including separation chemistry and modeling, that I can apply to my dissertation work back at my home university.”

Annie Kersting and former students
During a conference at Argonne National Laboratories in 2014, former-NFSIP director, Annie Kersting, was joined by many former NFSIP students now working in a variety of national security careers. Bottom row, from left: Jewel Wrighton, now working in the nuclear policy arena in Washington; Justin Walensky, a professor at the University of Missouri; Lindsay Shuller-Nickles, a professor at Clemson University; April Gillens, NNSA Fellow; Kersting; and Connor Hilton, a graduate student at the University of Maryland. Top row, from left: Brett Isselhardt, a staff scientist in forensics at LLNL; Chad Durrant, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania; Greg Brennecka, faculty at the University of Münster; and David Meier, a staff scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The direct interaction between Lab scientists and visiting students is central to NFSIP’s success. “This kind of mentoring is invaluable to the students,” said current Seaborg Institute and NFSIP director Mavrik Zavarin, “but I also see that the mentors benefit from the experience.”

“The relationships formed during the summer institute formed the basis of my early connections to researchers,” says Sutton, “from experimentalists working with me at the bench to mentors who, 19 years later, are still trusted advisors.” 

As students come through NFSIP, they help to strengthen the pipeline between LLNL and academic institutions. Kersting adds that some of the Seaborg Institute’s capabilities (like the high-resolution secondary ion mass spectrometer, Transmission Electron Microscopy, or Nano Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry) are especially attractive to the university community.

“People recognize the success of the program externally, so they want to send their students here,” she says. And over time, NFSIP and its predecessor program have helped to increase the number of Ph.D.s granted by university chemistry and earth science departments in the area of nuclear forensics, environmental radiochemistry, and actinide chemistry—all critical areas of scholarship needed for the national laboratories.

Based on the success of NFSIP, the Seaborg Institute is looking to new opportunities for the next generation of nuclear scientists that come to Livermore, including potentially offering both long-term and short-term nuclear science student internships throughout the year. “The summer institute is a foundational part of the Seaborg Institute,” Zavarin says. “We are now looking for new ways to host students and expand our education mission at LLNL.”

The 2017 NFSIP class continued the legacy of its 19 predecessors: talented, committed students pairing up with Lab scientists to characterize nuclear materials, determine the behavior of radionuclides in the environment, and study the fundamental properties of transactinide elements. Challenging careers await.

– Ben Kennedy