ASTRO participant conducts microbial research at ORNL Meet Sarah Thurmon

For Sarah Thurmon, a love of research took root in high school.

Through the Earthwatch nonprofit organization, Thurmon went on a scientific expedition to Northern California, where she and other students collected caterpillars and studied their relationship with parasitoids, organisms that live in close association with their hosts.

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During an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sarah Thurmon participated in microbial research efforts at the Center for Bioenergy Innovation.

“I learned so much about scientific research through this opportunity and the creativity associated with research,” she recalled.

Inspired by the experience, Thurmon went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biological sciences from Mississippi College, where her studies focused on virology.

After receiving her master’s degree, Thurmon participated in a yearlong internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) through the Advanced Short-Term Research Opportunity (ASTRO) Program. ASTRO assigns graduate students and recent master’s degree recipients to real-world projects in the basic and applied sciences, energy and environment.

“I knew (an internship at ORNL) would be such an incredible learning experience as well as a great way to contribute to research and discovery in a way that has the potential to shape a brighter future,” she said.

“This experience was truly a privilege to be a part of. For some of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and can really open a lot of doors for our future. We are equipped with so many valuable skills, both professionally and in research, which we wouldn’t otherwise have the ability to build. Whether you are looking for career development, network building or education in research, this program can accomplish all of these goals and more.”

During her internship, Thurmon contributed to research efforts at the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, where scientists are harnessing the power of microbes to break down biomass, or organic material, and convert it into alternative fuels and other products.

Under the guidance of Adam Guss, Ph.D., team lead for Rapid Domestication of Microbes within the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, Thurmon helped develop genetic tools to engineer microbes that can more efficiently consume lignin and cellulose in plants, thereby speeding up the conversion process.

For Thurmon, a highlight of the internship was the opportunity to collaborate with other researchers, national labs and universities.

“The possibilities are endless when there are so many talented individuals who are just as passionate and excited about the project as we are,” she said.

During her time at ORNL, Thurmon not only gained valuable laboratory experience, but also improved her communication and time management skills.

“This experience was truly a privilege to be a part of,” Thurmon said. “For some of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and can really open a lot of doors for our future. We are equipped with so many valuable skills, both professionally and in research, which we wouldn’t otherwise have the ability to build. Whether you are looking for career development, network building or education in research, this program can accomplish all of these goals and more.”

The ASTRO program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.