Training minority students in environmental restoration

Twelve FIU students have earned the opportunity to participate in hands-on research, competitive summer internships and personal mentorship that will train them to be the next generation of scientists and engineers in charge of environmental restoration in the United States.

These students are the newest cohort in FIU’s Department of Energy Fellowship, a workforce development program that prepares minority students in STEM majors for jobs in environmental remediation; high-level waste treatment and disposal; radiochemistry; nuclear forensics and more. The goal is to address the aging workforce in the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, where only 1 percent of employees are under the age of 35.

This year’s DOE Fellows at an induction ceremony in November.

“We’re responsible for the cleanup of the world’s largest, and really most costly and challenging, environmental project that mankind has ever created,” DOE Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management Monica Regalbuto said at the 2015 DOE Fellowship induction ceremony held in November. She was referring to the cleanup now necessary across the United States following last century’s nuclear arms race.

The DOE Fellowship is part of a recently renewed partnership between FIU and the U.S. Department of Energy, which granted FIU $20 million over the next five years to continue funding for the fellowship and research on environmental remediation at FIU’s Applied Research Center.

During the fellowship, students work with faculty mentors to conduct research at ARC. New fellow Alejandro Hernandez, a senior majoring in chemistry, is currently conducting research at ARC to stop the spread of nuclear contaminants at the DOE’s Savannah River Site, where the soil is polluted with radiation leftover from nuclear power plants that existed there in the 1950s.

“The program is very great,” Hernandez said, explaining that doing research as a fellow now will prepare him for a life in research. “It’s like a pipeline between being a student and the DOE workforce.”

An important feature of the DOE Fellowship is the emphasis on field experience; each student has the opportunity to take part in a 10-week summer internship with the DOE at one of its cleanup sites or laboratories across the nation.

DOE fellow Robert Lapierre, a graduate chemistry student, interned at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington surveying the land in search of lead and arsenic pesticide pollution in the region.

“Through the internship, you’re able to meet other scientists, and you just interact with so many people at a time that it’s a great thing,” said Lapierre, “and research at a national lab is pretty cool.”

Electrical engineering alumnus Elicek Delgado MS ’13, who now works as a radio frequency engineer for Motorola Solutions, said that overall, the DOE Fellowship prepared her for the real world of engineering, and that her superiors were impressed with the skills she already had entering the job, especially preparing and analyzing reports.

“It helps you with the little things you don’t learn in school,” she said, “and that matters.”

“You really do represent the next generation of engineers, scientists and leaders,” Regalbuto told the inductees. “It gives me great pleasure to see a lot of young, very talented and very well educated faces here with the right set of skills, because it gives me the confidence that in the years to come, when many of us are ready to retire, there will be many of you to replace us. And I think that the world is in good hands.”

This year’s DOE Fellowship inductees include:

  • Sarah Bird – undergraduate, Environmental Engineering
  • Silvina Di Pietro – graduate (Ph.D.), Chemistry
  • Alejandro Garcia, graduate (M.S.), Geoscience
  • Erim Gokce – undergraduate, Mechanical Engineering
  • Orlando Gomez, graduate (Ph.D.), Physics
  • Alejandro Hernandez, undergraduate, Chemistry
  • Iti Mehta – undergraduate, Mechanical Engineering
  • Awmna Rana, undergraduate, Chemistry and Biological Sciences
  • Alexis Smoot – undergraduate, Environmental Engineering
  • Christopher Strand – undergraduate, Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Gene Yllanes – undergraduate, Electrical Engineering
  • Sebastian Zanlongo – graduate (Ph.D.), Computer Science

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