The Catholic University of America

September 16, 2011

Work at Catholic University Lab Propels Interns into Leading-edge Science

  VSL intern
  At VSL, Marie Guehl, a chemistry graduate student from Ecole Superieure de Chimie Organique et Minerale of France, attaches glass-coated semiconductor fibers with silver paste to test their potential for solar cells.

In the brightly lit lab rooms of Catholic University’s Vitreous State Laboratory (VSL), Joe Zischkau spent the summer analyzing single strands of DNA being stretched with a magnetic field. For the 20-year-old rising senior from Carnegie Mellon University, it was a plum job on the frontlines of science.

It was “invaluable experience working in a lab,” says Zischkau.

Zischkau was one of 25 high school and college students who interned this year at VSL — a leading research center for studies of materials in their vitreous — or glass — state. Staffed by 100 scientists and engineers, VSL draws in an average of $7 million a year in grants and private contracts for its research programs.

Since 2009, through its competitive, paid internship program, VSL has provided young, would-be scientists and engineers still in school hands-on work experience in burgeoning areas such as nuclear environmental protection, fiber optics, biophysics, and nanotechnology.

The program accelerates learning and broadens academic horizons, explains Isabelle Muller, Catholic University adjunct assistant physics professor and director of the VSL internship program.

“One nuclear engineering student from a top-tier university told me he learned more in five weeks at VSL than his entire college freshman year,” she says.

VSL intern  
Visiting chemistry graduate student Mathilde Fauvin shows how she tests the compressive strength of new geopolymer or concrete-like material recycled from fly-ash produced by coal-burning power plants.  

“This internship definitely opened my eyes to other fields of science I had previously not considered and has opened the window for many opportunities,” adds Eileen Williams, a 16-year-old junior at the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Md., who worked at designing novel “green” concrete with recycled materials at VSL this summer.

During the internship, each student undergoes specialized training and conducts research alongside a VSL scientist who serves as research adviser. There are a wide range of projects; interns transform nuclear waste into glass that can be disposed of safely, change the direction of electrons to increase the speed and performance of computers, and make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy.

And in a format similar to international research conferences, the students present their work to the VSL scientists and members of the University’s physics, biology, and chemistry faculty. This year’s interns described their scientific findings in presentations at VSL from June to August.

The VSL internship program for high school students runs five to eight weeks in the summer and is open to D.C. area juniors and seniors who are at least 16 years old. The program for college undergraduates and graduate students is generally 15 weeks, from May to September. A few stay up to 12 months. They come from Catholic University and other universities around the world, from Georgetown University to Ecole des Mines in France.

Awards of internships are based on a student’s “motivation letter,” resume, number of science credits, especially in physics, and level of interest in research.

Typically each year, 40 students apply for VSL internships, and about 20 are accepted. This summer, six high school students and 13 rising and current college undergraduate students interned at VSL.

Catholic University’s Vitreous State Laboratory (VSL) is a leading research center for the studies of materials in their vitreous — or glass — state. At VSL, 100 Ph.D. scientists and engineers develop applications in areas like nuclear environmental protection, fiber optics,biophysics, and nanotechnology. Established in 1968, VSL operates on grants and private contracts totaling on average $7 million a year. In the area of nuclear science, VSL experts have developed processes to transform highly radioactive nuclear waste into stable glass that can be disposed of safely. Those technologies are in use at nuclear facilities in the United States, Japan, and Great Britain.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.

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