SEQUIM — Ciera Skelly was working toward a nursing degree at Peninsula College when her career path took a detour this summer. She had always loved biology and the sciences but was unsure about the jobs that might be available. Healthcare seemed a safer bet.
An internship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Sequim changed her mind.
“Now I’m doing environmental science,” Skelly said. “It showed the opportunities and what it felt like to be in a scientific environment.”
Skelly and fellow Peninsula College sophomore Ian Coughran were members of the inaugural class of the national Summer Pathway Program sponsored by the Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists.
It was part of the DOE’s Reaching a New Energy Science Workforce initiative that seeks to attract and encourage underrepresented groups into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
Skelly, Coughran, four other students from Peninsula College and a student from Yakima Valley College spent from July through the first week of August at PNNL, the only marine research facility in the DOE system.
In addition to PNNL, Pathway Summer Schools were held at Ames National Laboratory (Iowa); Argonne National Laboratory (Lemont, Ill.); Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Tennessee); and a collaboration between Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Batavia, Ill.) and Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, N.Y.).
Coughran already knew he wanted to study environmental science when he enrolled at Peninsula College. But like Skelly, he first learned about PNNL and the internship when representatives from the program visited campus.
Elizabeth Stephens, the STEM Workforce Development Lead with PNNL, said the Pathway Summer Schools program is intended to provide students education, mentorship and a means of seeing themselves as part of the science community.
Students received career guidance in developing a resume, how to write an internship or job essay and create a LinkedIn profile. They met with staff in charge of PNNL hiring to understand how the application and interviewing processes worked.
“There was an emphasis on careers in human resources, communications and finance,” Coughran said. “There are other kinds of avenues you can take without being a scientist.”
During their internship, Skelly, Coughran and the other students got an up-close look at PNNL’s research, which focuses on marine energy technologies and renewable resources like offshore wind, tidal energy and wave energy. In addition to observing bench scientists working in the lab, Coughran said students also had an opportunity to watch marine technical specialists and the on-site dive team in charge of testing at work.
The students also visited PNNL’s Hanford site, the McNary Dam in Benton County and the Wild Horse Wind & Solar Facility in Ellensburg.
Although the students were not able to conduct hands-on research, they did engage with technicians, engineers, scientists and other PNNL employees to learn about what they did and how it applied to the lab’s overall mission.
What impressed them most, Skelly and Coughran said, was the passion the people at PNNL had for their work and for explaining it to the students.
“It was amazing to interact with them and ask them questions,” Skelly said.
The opportunity to meet people and develop a network of professional associations was invaluable, Skelly and Coughran said. They hope to use the knowledge they gained this summer as a springboard for future internships at PNNL or other Department of Energy national laboratories, where they can gain hands-on experience.
“I think this gave us a little bit of a leg up,” Skelly said.
After earning their associates degrees, Skelly and Coughran said they plan to pursue bachelor’s degrees in environmental science at Western Washington University’s program that is offered at Peninsula College.
Coughran encouraged other students to apply for the Summer Pathway Program when it is offered next spring.
“This is something people should take advantage of,” he said.
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at email@example.com.