CCI program helps freshman confirm major, inch closer to career goal
Kingston, Tenn. native Eric Nolan remembers visiting Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a 10 year old, dreaming of what it would be like to conduct research there as a grown-up. Fast forward a decade and Nolan is well on his way to making his childhood dream a reality.
A participant in the Community College Internship (CCI), managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which is managed by ORAU for the U.S. Department of Energy, Nolan spent his summer alongside technicians and engineers, gaining real-world experience in mechanical engineering, his field of study.
The program, which is sponsored and managed by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) in collaboration with the DOE National Laboratories, seeks to encourage community college students to enter technical careers relevant to the DOE mission by providing 10-week internships at a DOE laboratory.
“The CCI program is awesome because I got a chance to do hands-on mechanical engineering research as a freshman as opposed to a junior or senior,” said Nolan, now a sophomore at Roane State Community College. “I discovered I really enjoyed this type of research, and it helped confirm that I chose the right major.”
Nolan’s role at the lab was to help develop a research method to measure the thickness of a composite material like carbon fiber using a non-contact method.
“Our goal was to make a topographical map of a composite material to help us locate imperfections,” explained Nolan. “Ultimately this method could be used by the aerospace or automotive industry to pre-check plane or car parts for errors. If engineers can measure the thickness of a part in real time while the part is being manufactured, they can ensure it’s correct, saving time and money.”
Alongside his mentor Dr. Brian Damiano in the Electrical and Electronics Systems Research Division, Nolan helped develop a proof-of-concept experiment to measure the thickness of a carbon fiber test piece. The idea was simple, said Nolan, but difficult to execute, and the challenge was a test of his critical thinking skills and provided him an opportunity to work in a team setting.
“Every day we faced new challenges, and it was fun to be a part of solving them. The engineers and technicians let me be a part of the decision-making and kept me involved,” said Nolan. “I also enjoyed developing relationships with my colleagues and mentor and being a part of their team. I’ve made some great friendships with them.”
Nolan engaged in a full spectrum of tasks, from designing parts in AutoCAD to building experiments.
“Each day was different, and I had the chance to learn and do a little bit of everything,” said Nolan. “It was truly a mechanical engineers dream.”
The CCI program afforded Nolan the opportunity to chat with scientists and attend seminars in other parts of the ORNL campus, including the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), the High Flux Isotope Reactor, and the Carbon Fiber Manufacturing Facility, among others. On his lunch break, he was able to say hi to his lifelong mentor: his father, a subcontractor for DOE.
“It’s fascinating because I’m actually researching with a couple of engineers that my dad worked with 34 years ago,” said Nolan. “It’s sort of like the ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ song—my dad is nearing retirement and now I’m here at the lab beginning my career.
While his appointment ended in August, Nolan was asked to continue contributing to his research project throughout winter. Next summer, he hopes to return to the lab once again. And as for his long-term career goal? A full-time position at ORNL is the dream.
“Every time there is a major scientific breakthrough, whether it be the 3-D printing of a car, the Pluto flyby, super computers, or the grand opening of the SNS facility, ORNL is always in the middle of it,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to conduct research here?”