Since graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Tennessee in 2015, Justine O’Dell has added several recognizable STEM organizations to her resume, such as NASA and the U. S. Air Force.

During her undergraduate career, O’Dell participated in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The program is designed to provide opportunities for students to participate in projects at federal facilities and encourage them to pursue STEM careers.

Alongside Erin Webb, Ph.D., a senior staff member of the Bioenergy Resource and Engineering team at ORNL, O’Dell was tasked with determining the economic feasibility of forestry bioresidue collection. The logging industry generates a woody residue that serves as a reliable source of bioenergy. Tree limbs can be collected immediately following a whole-tree harvest operation or they can be collected after a cut-to-length harvest operation, allowing them to dry. O’Dell’s research involved analyzing the cost efficiency of the two residue collection methods.

Where are they now? Justine O’Dell

As a former participant in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship Program, Justine O’Dell recognizes her experience is a valuable component in her subsequent success at NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

“At the end of my project, I determined it was not economically feasible to collect the residue because of the high transportation and refinement costs,” O’Dell explained. “Even though my project ended up not being a traditional ‘success,’ I still learned so much throughout the process. Also, others can benefit from the information that I collected.”

O’Dell recognizes the skills she gained and the relationships she formed during her participation were valuable for her subsequent success.

After graduation, she took a position at NASA as a flight controller at Mission Control in Houston for the International Space Station (ISS). Her chair was in charge of all electrical power systems and external thermal control on the ISS. During her time there, she participated in integrated failure simulations, updated flight rules and operation procedures, and interacted with astronauts.

Now O’Dell works for the U.S. Air Force’s Battle Management Directorate in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she serves as the technical point of contact for contract management within the Strategic Warning and Space Surveillance Systems Division.

As an alumna of the SULI Program, O’Dell offers this advice to future applicants: “My career goals have changed as I have experienced different types of STEM fields. You won’t know what you like or dislike until you give it a shot.”

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).