Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

November 18, 2020

The NIF & Photon Science Directorate’s Summer Scholar Program was preparing for students and graduate students from around the world to arrive in Livermore when the pandemic abruptly changed those plans.

A virtual poster with physicist Emily Link
A virtual poster from the 2020 Virtual NIF&PS Summer Science Scholar program promoted a session with physicist Emily Link. (Click to expand. Use keyboard arrow keys to view all photos.)

By that time, the team had sorted through the student applications and were planning tours and events and setting dates. The mentors were picking their students.

“There was a time when we thought we wouldn’t do it at all before the Lab decided to go ahead with the program,” said Summer Scholars Program Director Patrick Poole. “It was pretty wild.”

A New, Virtual Look

The Summer Scholars team quickly pivoted to redefining the scholars program into a remote format, just as many summer internships around the nation were being suspended. The scholars program, which runs about 10 weeks, offers experimental, theoretical, and computational research in disciplines including lasers, plasma physics, electro-optics, software development, optics development, and material science.

The team, Poole said, polled staff and mentors and found that “90 percent of the people said, ‘Yes, they could do projects online as long as you could find a way to get them (the students) access electronically.’ ”

By the end of the summer, 78 college and graduate students had experienced a different sort of NIF&PS summer internship at LLNL. Of that number, 33 were graduate students and 45 were undergraduates. In all, approximately 500 interns participated in LLNL programs this summer.

Team Quickly Creates Virtual Program

The virtual scholars program was assembled through the hard work, quick thinking, and inventiveness of key people, including Poole, NIF&PS Summer Scholar Administrator Alida Bevill, and Zhi Liao, who oversaw the program. In addition, Tanza Lewis and Sam Schrauth coordinated discussion panels.

A virtual poster with experimentalist Bob Heeter
Experimentalist Bob Heeter led a virtual seminar.

“One of our driving goals for the mentor program, especially for NIF in particular, is to encourage and excite students around both about what it’s like to work at a national lab, and also what it’s like to do this science or be part of these kinds of teams,” Poole said.

“We also wanted to give the students the sense of community that they usually develop,” he continued. “Part of our job on the scholars program is to come up with these social or exploratory events to show them about the Lab or the Bay Area.”

In lieu of actual Bay Area field trips, the program set up weekly seminars as part of a lecture series on NIF research. Informal biweekly coffee meetings featured a variety of Lab employees discussing their work, including a research scientist, laser tech, and systems expert.

The regular Bay Area tours—for example, to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View and to the Lab’s Target Fabrication site—also had to be reimagined. Instead, the team offered six online tours using photos and videos, including NIF and the Target Fabrication sites.

In lieu of the year-end poster contest, in which the students detail their projects onsite at the Lab, each student presented a brief talk via Webex. The so-called “research slam” was held before a panel of judges.

A virtual poster for a talk by Jeff Wisoff
Jeff Wisoff conducted his annual talk about his astronaut days virtually this year.

“I’m really proud of the team and the mentors and everybody coming together and putting together what is an excellent summer experience for a lot of students,” Poole said. “Definitely, we learned a lot and we’re going to improve it for the future.”

Poole said the team has learned “a host of technical issues” including dealing with slow internet connections to having the right vectors for communication between mentors and students.

In addition, the team will continue its coffee talks with Lab employees—even if the program returns onsite—because they proved to be a huge success, Bevill said.

Benefits, Advantages Cited

“The virtual internship program went exceptionally well given the circumstances of the pandemic, Liao said. ”Unlike a lot of other institutions, which shut down completely and left a lot of students’ plans hanging, the Lab did an exceptional job in standing up a remote internship program in a very short time,” Liao continued. He praised the program’s leaders, Poole and Bevill, for doing “a great job in arranging virtual experiences including summer seminars and coffee with a scientist to fill the gaps.

A virtual poster for physicist Laura Berzak Hopkins
Physicist Laura Berzak Hopkins conducted a virtual seminar.

“As a mentor to a remote intern this summer, I share the frustrations of not seeing your students and giving them the full experience of a LLNL summer internship but overall, our students appreciated the experience,” Liao said. “In the long run the experience gives us a leg up on our competitors.”

Poole said the Lab hopes to resume the Summer Scholars program onsite at the Lab next year. He said the virtual internship is a viable option for some students, particularly those living overseas.

Scholars Program Team Honored

For their efforts, the team that developed the virtual scholars program received a Lab Director’s Office Institutional Operational Excellence Award, one of 13 LLNL-wide teams honored for a variety of efforts supporting the Lab’s institutional goals. The scholars team was cited for “Excellent Innovation to Create a ‘Virtual’ Summer Student Program (COVID).”

“It was a huge institutional effort to create a successful virtual program,” Bevill said. “The feedback from the students and mentors tell a story of success. While we juggled multiple balls in the background, they said everything went exceptionally well.“

More Information:

“NIF Summer Scholar Turns Virtual Internship into Unique Experience,” NIF & Photon Science News, November 2020

—Jon Kawamoto

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