ORNL Undergraduate Research Profile: Kathryn Bales

In the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Kathryn Bales used her background in health physics to contribute to radiation research.

For many students, a research experience at a national laboratory impacts their future opportunities and goals. For Kathryn Bales, the experience was integral to her acceptance into her preferred graduate program.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Bales studied nuclear engineering with a radiological concentration and a minor in physics. After encountering medical diagnostic radiation as a child, she knew she wanted to contribute to the medical field.

With previous volunteer research experience at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Bales applied to participate in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program. For two terms, she researched alongside Shaheen Dewji, Ph.D., a staff scientist in the Center for Radiation Protection Knowledge. Two projects focused on health physics research and used Monte Carlo N-Particle (MCNP), radiation transport code, to determine dose coefficients and exposure rates.

The first semester project involved examining the effects of posture on dose reconstruction studies. During the second semester, the team researched exposure rates and dose data to be used for emergency response protocol. The research was done in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bales spent much of her time running simulations and analyzing the data. Often, she had to debug code and rerun the simulations, an act that required understanding mistakes and correcting them. Guidance from staff scientists in her group proved beneficial in this process.

After participation in the program, Bales will begin a graduate program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio in pursuit of a doctorate of medical physics degree.

“I was surprised to see how well my projects aligned with my graduate program,” Bales said. “It was also helpful to collaborate with such world-renowned scientists in the health physics field.”

Not only did her research experience aid in her graduate program applications, but she considers the internship vital to her acceptance.

“The graduate programs with which I interviewed were very impressed with my projects at ORNL,” Bales said. “Had I not had these experiences, it would have been much more difficult to get into schools.”

Bales’ ultimate goals involve a career in radiation therapy physics and making a positive difference in the realm of health care.

“The SULI program was absolutely invaluable for my career aspirations,” Bales said. “The skills I gained will help me in graduate school and beyond.”

The SULI program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) and is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), managed by ORAU.