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spacer spacer spacer spacer spacer May 18, 2000

Dept. of Energy intern finds experience personally rewarding


Several RIT students have participated in the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Research Undergraduate Laboratory Fellowships (ERULF). The program gives selected students hands-on research experience at national laboratories across the country. Following is an interview with biotechnology major Esperanza Nunez who spent the academic year conducting research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

What did you learn through the ERULF program?

Wow! Where should I start? Professionally I have been able to apply what I have learned in classes at RIT in addition to learning a great deal about molecular biology and microbiology. Furthermore, I have learned about new theories of evolution and how we view development.

Personally, I have learned the importance of confidence and hard work, an appreciation for mentors and co-workers, and the great advantages of networking. When I leave Berkeley, I know that I'll be leaving behind an incredible experience and long-lasting friendships.

What type of research do you conduct?

My particular project studies the phylogenetic relationships among members of the Bacillus cereus group.

Phylogenetics is a systematic way to study and reconstruct evolution, so our objective is to reconstruct the evolutionary pathways that led to the development of the strains that are the subject of this research. This goal is mainly being accomplished by sequencing of a gene.

Do you have a mentor?

Yes, as a matter of fact I have two. One is the principal investigator of the lab, Terrance Leighton, and the second one is Ehab El-Helow, a visiting professor from the university of Alexandria in Egypt. They are both exceptional mentors from whom I have learned science and life lessons. I spend a minimum of 40 hours a week in the lab, so I am getting a lot of training from my mentors.

Do you work with other students in the program?

I am working indirectly with a couple of students from UC Berkeley. However, I do get to meet with the other students in the program during official activities at the lab and after work. As ERULF-ers, we are suppose to attend weekly seminars besides participating in lab-wide events.

How did you learn about the Fellowship?

Research fellowships provide valuable opportunities

RIT students Todd Kuiken, Michael Shepard and Lynn Hall recently participated in energy research undergraduate laboratory fellowships sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

"It introduced me to the research side of environmental work and gave me access to new technologies and resources, expanding my knowledge of environmental issues," Kuiken says of the fellowship.

After earning a bachelor's degree in environmental management from RIT in February, Kuiken returned to the environmental sciences division at Oak Ridge where he now works on a biogeochemical project.

During his fellowship, Shepard, a fourth-year computer engineering major, "trained" artificial neural networks to predict results. Hall, a third-year applied mathematics major, developed mathematical models in the metals and ceramics division at Oak Ridge.

The RIT students were among 450 students chosen from 2,700 applicants. They spent up to 26 weeks on scientific research teams.

I learned about the ERULF program while looking for summer co-op opportunities at Thomas Frederick's Web site. He is an incredibly dedicated professor and former head of the biology department at RIT. Not only does he teach a course on cooperative education in the life sciences, but he has collected and organized a valuable set of career-related Web pages. I literally went to his Web page and scanned through all the opportunities that seemed interesting to me at the time. He is also responsible for me being able to take an internship last summer at The Institute for Genomic Research.

I also had encouragement and support from Robert Rothman who is also a faculty member in the biology department. There are not enough words of gratitude for these two professors who have had a significant impact on my life.

Would you recommend the fellowship program to others?

Definitely! I believe that RIT has a very unique approach in encouraging its students to gain experience outside the academic world. By participating in programs like this one, I can say that it certainly makes a big difference when one is able to use that knowledge which seems dormant at most times. These experiences provide you with a broader spectrum of career options and opportunities for higher education, besides allowing for personal growth.

What do you plan to do after you graduate?

My plans are to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in a life science-related field.

This summer Nunez will participate in an internship at the NASA Kennedy Space Center where she will enter an intense training program on life sciences.


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