A summer of science - three SMWC students conduct research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

September 19th, 2012 | SMWC


SMWC faculty and staff members joined the students for the final days of the internship. (L to R) Tiffany Marshall, Susan Gresham, Joyce Cadwallader, Ph.D., Shelby Becker, Debra Miller, Katherine Williams and Lana Lytle.

When Shelby Becker held the first prototype of a bionic limb, she said it felt like holding a backpack filled with 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 and two other Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) students examined bionic limbs, supercomputers, fusion reactors, vertically-aligned carbon nanofibers and cyber security tools as summer interns at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) 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. Shelby Becker, a senior biology major from Indianapolis, Ind.; Tiffany Marshall, a junior biology major from Kingman, Ind.; and Katherine Williams, a senior double majoring in computer information systems and digital media from Rome, Ind., all passed a rigorous application process that targets academically superior students.

Becker with poster
Shelby Becker, biology major, explains the details involved in her research.

“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.

“In general we used vertically-aligned carbon nanofibers to deliver fluorescent proteins into the nucleus of the metastatic breast cancer cells to see how long it takes for the cells to turn on or glow," Marshall explained. "All of this was done while keeping the cells alive, so that they could be used for further research." With access to state-of-the-art equipment, she was able to get experience conducting research with florencent microscopes, time-lapsed images and veritcally-aligned carbon nanofibers. She hopes her part in this multistep research project will help doctors in the future create more comprehensive treatment plans for cancer patients.


Tiffany Marshall, biology major, worked all summer on cell research with her mentor, Tim McKnight.

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 explained. “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 cybersecurity skills. “I learned about all the elements that go into a network and how the pieces fit together to protect it,” Williams 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.”


Katherine Williams, double major in CIS and digital media, stands with her mentors, Dr. Kevin Kerr and Ms. Tina Heath.

SMWC’s emphasis on experiential learning supplies students with unprecedented professional growth. With a successful alumni network, dynamic career development center and genuinely engaged professors, SMWC students have had résumé-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.”

Visit SMWC's Career Development Center online for more information about their dynamic offerings, such as local and national internships, supplemental learning experiences and résumé-building opportunities.

Check out the media coverage of our interns at Oak Ridge:

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