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The summer grind



Major: Chemistry
Hometown: St. Charles, MO

Year: Junior

My summer started on the 5th of May in St. Louis at Washington University Medical School. The previous Friday, I jumped in my car after finals and drove east along I-70, visiting friends in Denver, and ending up in St. Louis on Sunday. I grew up in St. Louis and my two brothers live in St. Charles County. My father is buried in St. Charles. Even though my notion of home has changed, traveling back to Missouri still feels like I am coming home.

This is the second summer that I have been invited to conduct research in a radiochemistry group led by Dr. Suzanne Lapi. This summer, I am joining the group as a Nuclear Science and Security Consortium summer research fellow. My mentor in the group is Tara Mastren, a graduate student who’s both inspired and challenged me. My work in the group supports Tara. Our research is focused on experiments related to isotope harvesting at the future Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University. Using the existing National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) at Michigan State, along with cyclotron produced isotopes from Washington University, we work on developing analytical characterization and separation methods for isotope purification. Development of new methods assist in establishing strategies for isolation of a target radioisotope from a soup of radioisotopes.

So, it’s June 4th, five weeks into my work this summer. I rolled out of bed at 6:00 AM. I am staying with close friends, a married couple, who are both scientists. They have a herd of dogs. I am a cat person. I laugh as irony twists the dagger a bit in my back. Coffee hits the thermos and the 35 minute commute commences, an exercise in dealing with aggressive urbanites. In the lab, the clock says 7:30 and the instrument I will be working on all day is warming up. Solvents are being purged, detectors calibrated, samples diluted and prepared. I have a pile of samples sitting and staring at me. They all have to be prepared and then ran on the instrument, which is also staring at me. The reward will be the data analysis next week, for now I’m in the trenches doing the same task 70-80 times, on a 20 minute interval. Behind me, a peak just populated on the live chromatogram but is too late on the method time scale. It’s likely an artifact. Figures. Frustration is quickly tempered with a bit of patience. Perhaps the next sample will play ball. So goes science. My mentor is gone for a few weeks, which means a solitary existence in the group. Being a second year undergraduate researcher, nobody blinks an eye and the constant beeping of Geiger counters no longer intrude in my thoughts.

In the morning, I dragged my favorite pair of loafers out of decay storage. Last week, we had an equipment failure and splattered a radioisotope of Cobalt inside a hood. I happened to be working in that hood. Luckily no skin contamination, I’d have to pull a James Bond and go scrub down in the shower until the atoms were off my skin. Instead, it was my very broken in and comfortable lab coat and favorite pair of shoes. Not a real big deal. The stuff gets tossed into a shielded container and is safe in a week. So, my comfortable loafers are back on my feet which puts me in a great mindset to consider the 20-minute presentation that I have to give to the entire group next week, as part of Tara’s hour long research update. The presentation is weighing heavily on my mind and most of my time today between injections will be mulling over ideas for slides. I leave for California on the 14th, six weeks of summer school, and return to St. Louis to finish out the summer, playing with radioisotopes and potentially getting a crack at a few cell studies, including some work with gels and western blots.

I wanted to convey two points with this post about my work and one of my days this summer. If you are curious about the STEM fields and considering Fort Lewis as a college option, then Fort Lewis is a school where you can cultivate a very strong baseline in many fields. That baseline, engaged faculty, and numerous opportunities for undergraduate research can prepare you to step outside Fort Lewis and succeed, even as an undergraduate in much larger settings. If you’re a current student at any level and have a desire to find an internship or participate in research, then knock on your advisor’s door and start the dialogue. My past two summers have been two of the most rewarding periods in my life. If you are considering Fort Lewis and have an interest in chemistry, then feel free to shoot me an e-mail with any chemistry questions (
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