Tomorrow’s STEM workforce trains at Hanford Site

September 8, 2021, 12:00PMNuclear News
During a recent road closure on the Hanford Site, Florida International University students (from left) Jeff Natividad, Joel Adams, and Thi Tran test a radiation mapping robot outside a tank farm. The students are part of a unique internship program between the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management and the university. (Photo: DOE OEM)

As part of a fellowship program between the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management and Florida International University, a group of FIU students participated in a summer internship initiative called the Science and Technology Workforce Development Program. The program is run in conjunction with Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), the Hanford Site’s tank operations contractor in Washington state.

STEM at the core: The program was designed to develop, train, and mentor a pool of minority students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) as the next generation of leaders for the DOE.

“The tasks we’re given during our time here allow me to apply what I learned in the classroom,” said Jeff Natividad, who took part in the program for a second summer in a row.

The work: Natividad and fellow FIU interns Thi Tran and Joel Adams spent time at Hanford programming a robot called the Canary. The device can travel through suspected contaminated areas to provide 3D maps of terrain that include radiological measurements of the grounds.

“We worked on refreshing its robot operating system, then added two more onboard computers to support additional sensors, redesigned the power system, and added three cameras,” Natividad said. “We also integrated the GPS and a new network system. It’s been a busy summer.”

Research areas: Students taking part in the fellowship program focus on one of four major research areas: tanks and high-level waste; deactivation and decommissioning; soil and groundwater; and artificial intelligence/ machine learning and information technology.

“This program allows us to tap into top talent with relative experience and education in the waste management sector,” said Alex Pappas, a WRPS technology management and field solutions scientist who serves as a mentor for the students. “Our frequent interaction allows us to build our knowledge depth and prepare the next generation of technical leaders for the Hanford Site.”

Some history: Since 2007, more than 190 FIU students have participated in the program, many of whom are the first generation in their family to attend college.

“This gives them the opportunity to participate in research that a lot of undergrads don’t get the chance to do. The program also provides an opportunity for master’s and doctorate students to develop their theses and dissertation research, respectively,” said Leonel Lagos, principal investigator for the DOE/FIU cooperative agreement and director of research at FIU’s Applied Research Center. “They come out of the program better prepared and with a better understanding of the industry.”

Future employment: Lagos said that by the time most of the graduates complete the program, they have job offers waiting for them to begin careers with the DOE, its contractors, or in private STEM-related industry.

“We appreciate the support of the DOE and the Office of Environmental Management,” Lagos added. “These students have a competitive edge because of the connection they make with the scientists and engineers in the field, and we couldn’t run this program without the support of the DOE and contractors like WRPS.”