Particle physics laboratory

Internship pairs Santa Fe students with Los Alamos National Laboratory mentors

September 11 – Computer scientist Mark Galassi said he noticed that there weren’t many Santa Fe students invited to participate in internships at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he works.

That’s why he partnered with Rhonda Crespo, a teacher at Monte del Sol Charter School, to create the Institute for Computing in Research internship, where they match high school students with mentors to teach them how to put their skills in programming.

“For me, the big issue was teaching kids to program how we really do it in science and engineering, versus these toy model programming approaches where kids take them, and it doesn’t really bring them closer to do the real work,” Galassi said.

This summer, the institute recruited 11 students from Santa Fe, 11 from Portland, Oregon, and 11 from Austin, Texas to participate in the program. Each student is matched with a mentor who works in their city and is tasked with creating a programming project based on the subject of their interest, be it biology, physics or even music.

Galassi and Crespo said they hope their program will help prepare these young students to become the next generation of scholars, researchers and programmers.

“Right now it’s high school students doing work that you see at undergraduate or graduate level, that level of performance,” Crespo said. “They have this ability to dig into this particular research, and it just gives them this bug that they’re like, ‘This is what I want to do in life.’ “

She said a few of their former trainees have already continued their research, given scientific lectures and published their work.

The couple said they plan to expand the program to New York and Socorro next year, but a lack of funding has prevented it from expanding to Santa Fe.

“We submitted a grant to the Oregon Community Foundation; 10 days later they gave us $37,000,” Galassi said. “In Santa Fe, I’ve been trying for three years to get the city to offer us funding, and they kind of promised it but never delivered.”

In Santa Fe, the institute relies on small grants and donations to keep the course going. Crespo said they would normally hire as many students as possible, depending on the amount of funding they get.

Student interns receive a stipend equivalent to living wage for a 35-hour work week, which is currently $12.95 per hour. Galassi noted that it will likely increase in coming years as the cost of living rises.

In addition, interns receive a budget to purchase a computer for the internship, which they then keep.

Emlee Taylor-Bowlin, a 16-year-old student at Monte del Sol Charter School, said she spent her internship time programming a model that illustrates neural changes in the brain of an octopus. She worked with Joan Mudge, a senior scientist at the National Center for Genome Resources in Albuquerque, to learn more about octopus DNA and create a model using the Python programming language.

“She was really able to help me learn the basic biology about how a neurological system works and how DNA can help modify neurons,” Taylor-Bowlin said. “It’s definitely a lot of work, but because you’re there all day, you can do it all. It’s a tough battle, but it’s really a lot of fun.”

Gabriella Armijo, 16, also from Monte del Sol Charter School, said she wanted to do something with engineering when she entered the internship.

She eventually decided to focus her project on satellite collision avoidance after talking to her mentor David Palmer – a LANL scientist – about space and satellite crashes.

“I really enjoyed it; it was a great experience for me,” Armijo said. “I learned about satellites, how they work and how they orbit the Earth.”