Before starting graduate school, Gabriela Ibarra wanted a chance to get hands-on research experience outside an academic setting.

Recently she found the perfect opportunity to do just that through the GEM Fellowship Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Under the guidance of mentor Michael Febbraro, Ph.D., Ibarra conducted research in ORNL’s Physics Division. Her research project centered on synthesizing and characterizing an organic polymer called poly(ethylene 2,6-naphthalate), or PEN, for use as a plastic scintillator. Scintillators are materials that emit light when they interact with ionizing radiation.

ORNL Participant Profile: Gabriela Ibarra

As a participant in the GEM Fellowship Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Gabriela Ibarra helped produce an organic polymer for use as a plastic scintillator.

“PEN itself is not a novel material; however, its usage as a plastic scintillator is relatively new,” Ibarra explained. “Thus, my focus has been on trying to develop a production method for PEN that can produce a clear as well as chemically and radioactively pure plastic.”

Ultimately, the hope is that PEN will be used as part of large-scale physics experiments. For example, PEN may be very useful in LEGEND (Large Enriched Germanium Experiment for Neutrinoless Double Beta Decay), an experiment that aims to detect neutrinoless double beta decay, a very rare form of nuclear decay.

“PEN is an attractive option to serve as the foundation of the experimental setup, not only due to its scintillation properties, but as it is also robust enough to survive the extreme conditions that the experimental setup would require,” Ibarra said.

In many ways, Ibarra’s research at ORNL took her into unfamiliar territory.

“As a student interested in studying the intersection of chemistry and biology, I would have never imagined that I’d be working on research to produce materials used in physics experiments,” she said. “However, this experience has made me aware of a whole different branch of science, which I think will help me become a more well-rounded scientist. Through my research project, I’ve had to think critically about how to use chemistry techniques to solve issues that arise from a physics standpoint.”

At the conclusion of their appointments each summer, GEM fellows at ORNL give technical presentations on their research. Ibarra was selected as the top presenter among the 2018 participants. She and the other GEM fellows recently attended the National GEM Consortium’s annual conference in Los Angeles.

After her ORNL appointment, Ibarra started a chemistry Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the area of chemical biology. She plans to study biological imaging modalities as well as medical diagnostics and therapeutics.

“Ultimately, I’d like my graduate education to help me gain the knowledge and skills to be able to conduct biomedical research, so that I can help solve problems that can lead to better health for society for years to come,” she said.

The GEM Fellowship Program is a partnership between the National GEM Consortium and ORNL. The National GEM Consortium is a network of leading corporations, research institutions and universities that enables qualified students from underrepresented communities to pursue graduate education in STEM fields. The program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.