LLNL hosts HBCU students, faculty to build new pipeline of talent

LLNL Hosts HBCU Students-crop (Download Image)

The NoVEL tour group from HBCUs poses with LLNL staff and interns in front of the Lab’s Research Library during their visit in August. Shown, from left to right, are: Vanessa Peters, Professor Peng Cheng, Elias Anwar, Ashleigh Wilson, Shamaar Howard, Professor Suely Black, Anthony Martin, Jordan Graham, Jaylin Coleman, Chantel Johnson, Jawuan Wilson, Alisha Saylor, Jordon Simmons, Jalyn-Rose Clark, Asia Jones, Ezekiel Mills, Zhi Liao, and Thejaswi Tumkur Umanath. Credit: Jason Laurea

For the second consecutive year, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) hosted a group of student scholars and faculty members from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) on a recent five-day visit.

LLNL’s goal is to develop the next wave of summer interns — and to build a strong pipeline of talent — from historically marginalized groups in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. The visit was sponsored by the Consortium for Research and Education in Materials Science and Photonics Engineering (NoVEL Consortium).

NoVEL is part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (MSIPP), a partnership between the Lab’s National Ignition Facility and Photon Science Directorate (NIF&PS) and three HBCUs — Norfolk State University, Virginia State University and Elizabeth City State University.

The visit was timed so that the group’s first experience was the NIF&PS Summer Scholar Program’s poster symposium on Aug. 2, which drew an estimated crowd of 150 interns, mentors and supporters to the Lab’s Research Library.

From there, the group had lunch at Garré Vineyard & Winery with Jeff Wisoff, NIF&PS principal associate director. Other events included a NIF Summer Scholar Seminar with Jean-Michel Di Nicola, co-program director for NIF&PS Laser Science & Technology and Systems Engineering.

The group also attended a meet-and-greet luncheon with several members of the African American Body of Laboratory Employees (ABLE), an inclusive LLNL Employee Resource Group that provides a forum for employees and guests to promote awareness of Black, African, African American and Caribbean culture and share professional insights.

Over the five days, the group toured NIF, the Target Fabrication facility, the Materials Science Division (MSD) lab, the Optics Production Facility (OPF) and Optics Mitigation Facility, (OMF); the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory (AML), the Microscopy lab and others.

New this year was a tour of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park on Aug. 8, the last day of the visit.

The students came away impressed with LLNL and excited about applying for internships.

“When we first arrived at the Lab, I was stoked,” said Asia Jones, a second-year chemistry student at Norfolk State University. “It was so cool to finally see what the famous LLNL looked like in-person. Throughout the week, we toured many labs and even got the opportunity to see the (NIF) laser.

“The overall culture of the Lab seemed very homey and welcoming. Everyone was so open to a conversation. Altogether, I enjoyed my trip at LLNL and will hopefully be returning for an internship.” 

Jones said the radiochemistry lab was her favorite spot on the tour. “It was so cool to see all the instruments and what the students were working on,” she said.

"The week at LLNL was very informative regarding the scope and impact that research can have outside of academia,” said Ezekiel Mills, a second-year Ph.D. student in the materials science and engineering program at Norfolk State University. “The NIF, while popular, was a highlight just on the scale and impact of the accomplishment of fusion.

“I liked the environments of the OPF/OMF, MSD, micro-fab, and microscopy labs. In the MSD and AML, there were lots of equipment and techniques I have used personally, just a lot grander in scale. The scientists and team leads were all passionate about their work, which was a welcome sight.”

The NoVEL group of students and faculty members toured the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park. (Photo: Zhi Liao)

Shamaar Howard, a senior optical engineering major at Norfolk State, called the NoVEL scholars’ visit “an incredible opportunity.” Howard, who plans to attend Norfolk State’s materials science graduate school, served as a Navy corpsman for eight years and is deeply committed to defense and national security.

“My time in the military allowed me to witness firsthand the importance of cutting-edge research and technological advancements in maintaining our national defense,” Howard said. “As a corpsman, I realized it's not just about developing innovative technologies; it's about applying those technologies effectively to safeguard our country and its values and citizens. This perspective has driven my interest in aligning my academic pursuits with real-world applications that have the potential to contribute to the defense and security landscape.

“The Lab's commitment to addressing critical challenges, such as advanced medical technologies and nonproliferation, aligns perfectly with my commitment to defense,” he said.

Howard praised the NoVEL Consortium and its goal to help HBCU students.

“Considering my unique journey as an HBCU student and combat veteran, I firmly believe that if more individuals from similar backgrounds were aware of opportunities like the NoVEL Consortium, they would be eager to commit,” he said. “These experiences transcend the mere expansion of horizons; they offer a chance to contribute to the well-being of our nation directly.”

Norfolk State University Professor Suely Black, chair of the university’s chemistry department, said one of her highlights of the trip was “seeing how excited the students got. The opportunity to interact with the staff, getting answers to our questions during the tour made it special. It is clearly a very collaborative environment and that to me is very exciting.”

Thejaswi Tumkur Umanath, a LLNL research scientist and Norfolk State alum who was among the Lab staff hosts, was impressed with the NoVEL group.

“I was pleased to host and interact with the NoVEL visitors, especially the students who were visiting for the first time,” Umanath said. “The students were evidently excited to hear about advanced manufacturing and 3D printing, among other topics they learned about on their tours. I am particularly excited by the fact that these site visits through the MSIPP NoVEL partnership continues to be a pipeline for recruiting passionate and motivated students.” 

LLNL research scientist and Norfolk State alumna Vanessa Peters, who helped to organize the NoVEL visit and served as a Lab host, also praised the visiting students.

“It was great having the students here to see the wide range of research topics a summer internship can cover just within NIF,” Peters said. “The students enjoyed their visit, and all left with at least one connection added to their network from the Laboratory staff. They are excited about applying for internships for the upcoming summer.” 

The recent Lab visit is part of the Lab’s ongoing work with the NoVEL Consortium and its outreach to HBCU students. Every Friday at 5 p.m., consortium members meet virtually for an hour — via a video conferencing call — with graduate and undergraduate students, mentors, and faculty members from the three HBCUs. Approximately 40 people participate each week in a wide-ranging format that has included technical talks by LLNL staff, research reports from graduate students and other activities.

For example, during the Jan. 27 meeting, the agenda listed eight research topics, including “Prototyping of photonic metamaterials with 3D printing” and “Control of laser dewetting using nonlocal dielectric environments” from Umanath, and “COMSOL training and modeling support for strong coupling efforts” by LLNL’s Nathan Ray. The students were assigned the topics and had to give a five-minute presentation.

Throughout the year, NoVEL holds three retreats that include workshops, poster presentations, and trainings, Black said.

“I think that when we have a critical mass of HBCU graduates at laboratories, we can form an association to provide support and create more awareness,” Black said. “I cannot express how helpful the NoVEL partners at LLNL are. They know about our challenges, they help us manage them and address them. I’m very hopeful that we are building a successful model that can be replicated.”

Black spoke highly of the Lab culture: “people are super friendly” and she has become a big fan of LLNL, so much so that she’s thinking about spending a few weeks next year on an educational research project.

“I enjoyed this so much,” Black said. “The facilities are amazing, and the people working there are just so helpful.” 

Black singled out Peters and NIF&PS Workforce Manager Zhi Liao for their help in organizing the NoVEL visit and for their ongoing involvement in helping HBCU students.

“I really appreciate how much Vanessa and Zhi are mindful and intentional,” she said. “They made sure that the time spent was well spent, everything was meaningful, relevant and exciting. I would say that another highlight for me is just collaborating with Vanessa and Zhi. I’ve been collaborating with people for a very long time, but they’re at the top of my favorite collaborators.”

Lab staff who helped with the NoVEL visit included Liao, Peters, Umanath, Danyelle Asbe, Ibo Matthews, Keturah Palma, Candace Harris, Terri Delima, Ted Laurence, Bradley Childs, Marcus Monticelli, Scott Trummer, Mike Nostrand, Katya Newman, Chalena Ramirez, Justin Patridge, Dom Porcincula, Lorisa Emery, Steve Payne, Donovan Day, Debora Rosas and Federica Coppari. 

— Jon Kawamoto