Ever wonder what the Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit looks like from the inside? Check out Carolina Gutierrez’s Berkeley Lab Instagram Takeover, “The Day in the Life of an Intern at ABPDU,” at www.instagram.com/berkeleylab/.

As a high school student in her hometown of Manteca, California, Carolina Gutierrez was a top student who excelled in advanced placement math and science classes, graduating third in her senior class. She was well-rounded too, active in volleyball and student government, and volunteering for the nonprofit Give Every Child a Chance.

Carolina Gutierrez (right) with her 2016 mentor, Ning Sun. (Credit: Paul Mueller/Berkeley Lab)

But when it came time to deciding which of the many college admissions offer letters she’d accept, something didn’t seem right. “When I got my letters back, I regretted not applying to any of the University of California campuses. I figured at that point, attending a UC would be better,” she said.

So instead of settling for second best, she set her sights on the UCs while attending San Joaquin Delta College, a community college that serves the city of Stockton and its surrounding communities.

When she ran into former classmates, they’d sometimes ask why she chose a community college over a four-year university. But Gutierrez never doubted herself. “I held my head up high. Community colleges aren’t always a bad thing. It made sense financially, and after high school, I knew I wasn’t ready yet to leave home, although academically, I think I would’ve been fine,” she said. “Looking back, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

While attending Delta College, Gutierrez tutored students in chemistry. “That was the first time I was paid to do something that I love: studying chemistry and helping people!” she said. And she also received real-world research experience by working as a student intern at Berkeley Lab.

This summer, she completed her second internship through the Department of Energy’s Community College Internship (CCI) program at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit in Emeryville.

Under the supervision of Ling Liang, a process engineer, she worked on figuring out how effective lignin-derived ionic liquids, solvents used in a variety of renewable energy applications, would be for biomass pretreatment.

“Lignin is the most abundant natural polymer out there. Its most common application is to burn it, converting it into electricity,” Gutierrez explained. “But what if you could do more with it? If we can turn lignin byproducts into ionic liquids, we could create a closed-loop process that would help drive down the costs of biofuels for the mass market.”

She also got hands-on experience in scientific writing. “It’s important that our interns, especially the returning ones like Carolina who are pursuing careers in scientific research, become accustomed to getting critical, constructive feedback, and learn how to ‘talk science’ with scientists and engineers,” said Liang. “I’m really happy with Carolina’s progress this summer. She played an important role in helping us analyze project data for what we hope will soon become a published journal article.”

Gutierrez presenting her research at the 2017 Undergraduate Intern Poster Session. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

Gutierrez credits the CCI program for making her a better speaker as well. “My first poster presentation was very nerve-wracking, but Laleh Coté of Workforce Development & Education did a great job preparing us to communicate with a lay audience,” she said.

And with her improved presentation skills, she managed to persuade other students to consider STEM careers too. After giving her first poster presentation in 2016, she was invited to give a talk about her internship experience to students participating in San Joaquin Delta College’s MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) program. “At community colleges, some students might think, ‘I can’t do this.’ But after I gave my presentation, a lot of students were inspired to apply for an internship at Berkeley Lab,” she said.

Gutierrez’s work at the Lab also impressed the Engineer’s Club of Stockton, which recently awarded her a scholarship that she’ll use toward tuition and living expenses at UC Berkeley, where she’ll major in chemical engineering this fall.

“I’m very grateful for the CCI program. I had little knowledge about the biofuels industry before I started to work at the Lab,” she said.” After Cal, I want to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D.”


Go here for more information about internships hosted by Workforce Development & Education at Berkeley Lab, or contact them at [email protected].

This work was supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) under the Community College Internship (CCI) program.