Director's Corner

Release Date: January 12, 2015

Lighting the Fires of Education: Mentoring and Internships at NETL

Poet William Butler Yeats once wrote that "education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." By that definition, NETL has been lighting fires for America’s young people for decades by providing experience, guidance, mentorship, and incomparable education opportunity—a tradition that continues through a very robust collection of public outreach activities.

At NETL, pursuit of vision and accomplishment come naturally to our talented collection of professional energy researchers. Our work requires patience, diligence, and detailed planning. That means, as scientists, we ask pertinent questions and uncover new, unexpected answers and, as engineers, we design solutions to impossible scenarios. Together, we make up the research community of NETL that is making significant contributions to the nation’s energy reliability and security. But, we remain ever mindful that the next generation of scientists, engineers, and researchers is also part of that community. That’s why we aggressively seek opportunities to bring our unique skills to their support.

For example, each year, NETL hosts students for the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship (MLEF) Program, which is special in its mission to enrich workforce diversity. For 20 years, the MLEF program has provided students, especially women and minorities, with opportunities to gain hands-on research experience with fossil energy. NETL has hosted students since the program’s inception, helping to train students—many from traditionally underrepresented groups—for careers in science, engineering, technology, and math. In the process, we also educate them on how we, as a lab, are working to address the energy challenges of the future.   And it is the hope that some of these students will one day consider joining the ranks of NETL’s scientific and technical workforce.

NETL has a lot to offer these students: a broad portfolio of energy research; world-class research facilities that give students unique opportunities; and, perhaps most importantly, we have a highly skilled team of researchers who can serve as mentors.

Last summer, NETL hosted 30 MLEF interns between June and August. We were the largest recipient of MLEF fellows across all of DOE.  We gave this diverse group of interns solid challenges and a firm foundation for future success. Our interns investigated advanced combustion technologies like chemical looping, which will enable cleaner use of America’s abundant coal resources. They worked in NETL’s world-class Hyper facility, running simulations on ultra-efficient hybrid systems that pair fuel cells with gas turbines. And, they explored the stability and properties of foamed cement to help make offshore oil and gas drilling safer for the environment. These are only a few examples of the important research areas where mentors and mentees worked together to make a positive impact on energy and a powerful impression on future colleagues. 

We all know that the energy challenges we investigate and the solutions our research aims to uncover will not happen overnight and neither will preparing tomorrow’s scientists. Mentoring and encouraging the next generation of STEM researchers is important for NETL as a National Lab, for our profession, and for our nation. Interns are developing knowledge and skills through the academic programs they pursue, but that’s only part of their education. It’s working shoulder to shoulder with researchers that make the real difference. This is where they actually have the chance to apply knowledge to the practical world, and it’s where we have an additional chance to affect future innovation for America’s energy independence and environmental protections by making sure there are qualified researchers who can carry on our work for decades.

The MLEF program is just one example of the internship and educational opportunities available through NETL. We also sponsor STEM-related outreach activities for K–12 students, including Science Bowls and school visits, to help inspire interest in these fields and encourage students to pursue these disciplines that are so critical for America’s future. For teachers, we offer resources to further enhance excellence in STEM education, including hands-on workshops and educational materials and software.

I am proud of the role that NETL continues to play for the next generation of energy researchers. There is no substitute for the many years’ of practical, professional experience that NETL employees share, and I look forward to continuing its productive mentoring tradition. One by one, student by student, we will light the fires of education that will propel the nation forward. 

As Acting Director of NETL, Sean I. Plasynski, Ph.D., builds on an extensive background in energy as he leads NETL in its mission to enhance the nation’s energy independence and protect the environment for future generations. For more information about Sean Plasynski's experience, please click here.