By The Texas A&M System National Laboratories Office
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and Sandia National Laboratory provided support and mentorship for students in Texas A&M University’s 2020 Online Research Experiences for Undergraduates (O-REU) program, established this summer as a response to COVID-19 challenges. Participation was a great benefit to the students, mentors and laboratories overall.
Chrisma Jackson, Sandia National Security Programs senior manager and Texas A&M campus executive, said, “We greatly appreciate the opportunity to partner with Texas A&M and be part of the O-REU program. It allows the students to have access to professors, a national laboratory cohort and seminars. In the midst of the pandemic chaos, this O-REU program provided a wonderful collaborative opportunity.”
Many undergraduate students participate in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs around the country every year. In these programs, students receive first-hand experience with research, attend seminars, improve knowledge, and skills in their respective fields and network with scientists within and outside of university systems. These skills provide the students a launch pad for future laboratory opportunities.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional residence-based REU programs were canceled. In response, Texas A&M created an online version allowing students to participate despite the pandemic conditions. A total of 58 students from various institutions, including students from outside of The Texas A&M University System, completed the O-REU program, about a third of whom were previously accepted into Texas A&M REUs and the rest were new applicants from across the country.
One benefit to the participating laboratories was the increased variety of students who were able to participate. Jeff Smith, Ph.D., Sandia Component Science & Mechanics, said, “The most exciting aspect was access to students who might not have come to Sandia or been involved had it not been a remote experience.”
The program provided for accommodations for students who may have had previous arrangements for the summer. For example, Matt Marinella, Ph.D., Sandia Advanced CMOS Solutions, would not have been able to work with his student if it were not for the program accommodating his student, whose plans had to change at the last minute. Their collaboration over the course of the program accelerated both his student’s and his own research schedules.
The partnership between Texas A&M and the labs also resulted in some excellent mentor and student matches. Robert Hackenberg, Ph.D., LANL Sigma-2, had a project ready but needed a student to work with. He felt that the match made by program leadership was superior to any he would have made on his own, since he needed a student from a different area of expertise.
Aside from providing collaborative opportunities, the online nature of the program allowed students and researchers to explore new skills and procedures to conduct and facilitate research. Stuart Maloy, Ph.D., LANL MST-8 deputy group leader and University of New Mexico National Lab professor, explained, “The O-REU program gave my student the opportunity to learn a modeling technique using tools available online and apply it to a materials science issue and gained a skill they can apply to materials projects in the future.”
Several of the mentors emphasized the importance of working with future scientists and engineers early in their careers. These collaborations increase awareness of and exposure for LANL and Sandia and foster a pipeline for future interns, collaborators or employees.
Hackenberg (LANL) stated, “In addition to the rewarding experience of working with my own student, O-REU 2020 gave me a chance to have conversations about research and grad school/careers with those outside my immediate research group. Establishing this connection early in their careers will positively impact both myself and students beyond this summer program.”
Furthermore, the program format allowed flexibility for mentors to share their research with a broader audience than normal and were able to watch research presentations from all 58 O-REU student participants. Hackenberg particularly appreciated this aspect because it allowed him to provide feedback to students about their communication skills, something he wished he would have had at that stage of his own career.
Overall the experience for mentors and students was exceptionally positive. The success was summarized well by Ben Cook, Sandia senior manager, academic partnerships: “Sandia benefitted from the students’ enthusiasm for the work, and they benefitted from their mentors’ expertise and real-world experience in national security. Without O-REU, we would have struggled to find positions for these students.”
Those who coordinated and participated in the O-REU this past summer are looking into the possibility of continuing the program. Doing so could expand opportunities of the students and the national laboratories alike.