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Hooked on Science: Berkeley Lab Prepares Students for Careers in Research

Alex Prucha says he always kind of knew he wanted to be a scientist, or maybe a doctor, even though he had no idea what it entailed, beyond what he saw on TV. For Kathryn Liu, science had always been one of her favorite subjects in school. Benjamin Bjornstad liked volunteering for local ecology groups but had his sights set on becoming a dentist.

All three spent the summer after their junior year of high school doing an internship at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. After that experience, what was once an abstract or sideline interest came into sharp focus as a concrete career option. Now college undergraduates, Prucha, Liu and Bjornstad are among about a dozen students who have decided to return for their second or even third summer at the Lab, out of a total of 115 high school and college interns at Berkeley Lab this summer.


Alex Prucha with mentor Frank Chen (photos by Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

“Working at Berkeley Lab has changed my life and its future,” said Bjornstad, who is spending a third summer working in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division on a software program to make commercial buildings more energy efficient. “I was always involved in my community doing environmental work, but I never necessarily thought about majoring in Environmental Science until I got to Berkeley and had my first internship in the summer of 2009.”

Of course not all interns go on to become scientists. But for some, the real-world, hands-on experience afforded by working closely for a summer with Berkeley Lab scientists engaged in cutting-edge research shapes career choices. Berkeley Lab’s Center for Science and Engineering Education (CSEE) offers summer internships aimed at teachers, high school students and undergraduate students and faculty at four-year universities and community colleges.


Benjamin Bjornstad

For students who choose to return to Berkeley Lab, CSEE internship programs are often pivotal in deciding their futures. “We have seen these experiences literally change lives,” said CSEE director Susan Brady. “When teachers and students conduct authentic research with exceptional scientists using world-class facilities and equipment, they are introduced to a whole new world of possibilities. It can really change their perspective of science as a career and of themselves as participants in the scientific community.”

Kathryn Liu with mentor Miriam Bowring

Kathryn Liu with mentor Miriam Bowring

That was certainly the case for Prucha, who said his three summers working in a lab growing bacteria as part of a breast cancer project helped steer him towards his decision to eventually pursue a doctorate in science. “Ten years down the road, the things we’re learning every day in the lab could potentially have contributed to detecting breast cancer at an earlier stage,” said Prucha, who will be a sophomore at UC Berkeley majoring in molecular and cell biology with a minor in theater. “I’m kind of hooked on this. Knowing I can make a contribution, however small, is kind of cool.”

Same for Liu, who is spending the summer working on organometallic catalysts and plans to pursue a graduate degree in science. “When I first started, I didn’t know any of what they were talking about, but that just motivated me to come in every day with a good attitude to learn more,” she said. “One of the biggest things I like about research is that nothing’s definite. I know I want to do science. I want to engage in this awesome science conversation.”


Ainsley Lockhart

Ainsley Lockhart, who worked for one summer at the Joint BioEnergy Institute and is now working at the Joint Genome Institute, says the best part of her internships has been the advice she’s gotten from the scientists. “I don’t know if I should say this, but I was told not to work too hard as an undergrad,” she offers hesitatingly. “Because I have a tendency to overachieve a little bit, they were saying, ‘enjoy your youth.’ They told me, ‘we all had fun in college too, and we all ended up OK.’”

So she took the advice to heart, and in addition to majoring in molecular biology, she’s involved in the French and dance departments at her college. And next summer she’s getting away from the lab and will travel to Madagascar to do work in biodiversity. She still wants a career in science, but “when you’re looking at molecules all day, it’s easy to forget there’s things beyond that,” she said. “I’m researching genetics, but it’s important to remember what that means in terms of everyday life and real people.”

Although Lockhart and the others won’t be able to do additional CSEE internships after they complete their undergraduate studies, they just might be back later in their careers. “Working here definitely opened my eyes to the field of research as a feasible career option,” Prucha said. “I see myself building a career at Berkeley Lab, or another national laboratory.”