News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 27, 2012

Woods students conduct research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

By Sara Palmer
St. Mary-of-the-Woods College

TERRE HAUTE — When Shelby Becker held the first prototype of a bionic limb, she said it felt like holding a backpack filled with all her books for an entire semester. When she picked up one from the newest generation, she said it felt, “well, as light as bone.”

Instead of spending their summer vacation relaxing at the beach, Becker, along with two other St. Mary-of-the-Woods College students, examined bionic limbs, super computers, fusion reactors, vertically aligned carbon nanofibers and cyber security tools as summer interns at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

“It was a mix of real-life and science fiction,” Becker said “I was right there. I got to see and do things I never thought possible.”

The SMWC students were three of 12 handpicked interns in ORNL’s prestigious Research Alliance in Math and Science program. Paired with world-class mentors, they collaborated on groundbreaking research projects in the Department of Energy’s largest multipurpose laboratory.

Becker, a senior biology major from Indianapolis, Tiffany Marshall, a junior biology major from Kingman, and Katherine Williams, a senior double majoring in computer information systems and digital media from Rome, Ind., all passed a rigorous application process.

“They all possess intellectual curiosity,” said Susan Gresham, director of SMWC’s career development center. “At ORNL, the students made new professional contacts and worked with prestigious scientists. They developed their research skills, using specialized equipment and applying new techniques.”

The projects were just as unique and diverse as the students conducting them. Becker studied eye-gazing patterns of radiologists when screening mammograms, while Williams evaluated the lab’s exposure to various cyber attacks.

Marshall grew, isolated and analyzed tumor cells with equipment that was invented right there at ORNL.

“We used cameras hooked up to fluorescent microscopes and computers,” Marshall explained. “We took time-lapsed photos of the circulating tumor cells after they were impaled on vertically aligned carbon nanofibers, which delivered yellow fluorescent protein plasmids into the cells. Then the next day we could look at the images and determine approximately how long it took for the cells to start to glow.”

Marshall was able to do all of this while keeping the cells alive. She hopes her research will help doctors in the future create more comprehensive treatment plans for cancer patients.

Becker’s project was also related to cancer cells, only she worked mostly with computers. “About 30 percent of all breast cancer lesions are missed during screening,” she said. “We wanted to develop possible hypotheses for why these lesions are missed.” Becker used computer programs such as WEKA (Waikato Environment for Knowledge Analysis) and the open source language R to analyze data and track results.

In a whole other realm of the computer world, Williams was beefing up her cyber security skills. “I learned about all the elements that go into a network and how the pieces fit together to protect it,” she said. “I also did research into a scoring system for identifying machines within ORNL that had a higher risk of being hacked.”

The internship offered the students a unique taste of post-college life. The students not only worked 40 hours a week, but they lived on their own, as well. “I rented an apartment with the other two SMWC interns,” Becker said.

“We worked eight-hour days and paid bills. It really drove home what life will be like after college.”

SMWC’s emphasis on experiential learning supplies students with professional growth. With a successful alumni network, career development center and engaged professors, students have had resume-building experiences from Washington, D.C., to Orange County, Calif.

“They experienced a whole new level of independence and developed their confidence” Gresham said.

“They learned a great deal about their skills, interests, values and personality traits. This is extremely important as they transition from college to the professional world.”