As the U.S. military grows in technological sophistication, it is fitting that some of its future leaders are getting a four-to-six-week full-immersion experience at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This summer, through the Service Academies Research Associates (SARA) Program, the Laboratory hosted 17 cadets and midshipmen from the military academies at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs. LANL offers these students hands-on learning with the Laboratory's national security science and technology.
Not What They Expected
While at Los Alamos, the 2011 SARA students worked directly with Laboratory principal investigators, assisting with ongoing research and development projects related to national security.
"There are a lot of summer training programs out there, but most are class-like," said U.S. Air Force cadet Dale Becker, who spent his Los Alamos time with the Physics Division's Extreme Fluids Team. "This was nothing like I expected. It was real life, not just theoretical. I was given a problem and had to come up with an elegant solution."
Jon Ventura of the Laboratory's Principal Associate Directorate, Weapons Programs, and Harald Dogliani of the Principal Associate Directorate for Science, Technology, and Engineering, helped relaunch this year's cadet program after a five-year hiatus. "We put them to work on real problems that have a direct bearing on each student's academic program—and on the work of the Laboratory," says Ventura.
The 2011 SARA participants attended classes and lectures at the Laboratory. For example, the eight students assigned to the Computational Physics Division in the Laboratory's Weapons Directorate were instructed in how to use the Monte Carlo N-Particle code. This is the premier computer code for simulating how radiation interacts with matter. It is used to support many applications, including weapons work, fission and fusion reactor design, determination of dosage safety for radiation workers, and medical physics.
Some students also visited the Nevada National Security Site to see firsthand its experimental capabilities and activities, including the Device Assembly Facility that supports the Stockpile Stewardship Program's subcritical experiments.
The students were drawn to the program for the chance to take part in real work. The students' time was spent on genuine research projects across a broad spectrum of disciplines: thermodynamics, materials science, computer modeling, space science, and alternative energy technology, to name just a few.
One student, for example, used Monte Carlo code modeling to investigate neutron flux (a measure of the intensity of neutron radiation) in relation to materials that might be used in a nuclear reactor. Others, also assigned to the Computational Physics Division, worked with the fundamentals of nuclear weapons and learned about high explosives, methods of detection for monitoring nuclear tests, and the effort involved with maintaining and validating the performance of the nuclear weapons stockpile (stockpile stewardship).
One naval midshipman said he was most impressed by the applicable experience gained "outside the classroom," a sentiment expressed by many of his colleagues who were pleasantly surprised by the opportunities the Laboratory offered.
"It was interesting to see how the research aspect works," said another naval midshipman. "Before coming to Los Alamos, I didn't know what researchers actually did. There were so many interests available to us here," a fact that Balakumar (B.J.) Balasubramaniam, who mentored students in the Physics Division's Neutron Science and Technology group, attributes to the Laboratory's multidisciplinary setting. At the Laboratory, SARA students are offered a unique opportunity for interaction with research leaders in many fields. "There is a cross-pollination between multiple areas here," he says, "and that is what makes the Laboratory beautiful."
Students placed in the Physics Division with the Extreme Fluids Team applied high-resolution diagnostics to problems of fluid dynamics in extreme environments. The need for alternative energy sources is considered an aspect of national security, so students with the Extreme Fluids team focused some of their time on ways to predict, mitigate, and control failure rates in wind turbines, thereby improving efficiency in wind-energy generation.
Another student partnered with Los Alamos scientist Tom Vestrand to work with RAPTOR, the Laboratory's robotic optical telescope array that independently scans the universe and can also be used to detect objects orbiting Earth. Others worked on a meteor's potential effect on an urban community or studied optical phenomena and blindness caused by improvised explosive devices.
The Laboratory's Bioscience Division also welcomed SARA students, one of whom, Calla Glavin, worked with developers of the Laboratory's award-winning Ultrasonic Algal Biofuel Harvester, which concentrates the cells of algae so their lipids—fatty, energy-rich molecules—can be extracted and used for making biofuel. Glavin helped further this technology, which was recently featured in Algae Industry Magazine, an online publication.
A Parallel Way to Defend the Country
Glavin reported that her Army advisor was a former SARA student who described the program to her as "phenomenal." At the end of her summer tenure, Glavin could freely concur that LANL provides a truly unique setting, and the program is a parallel way to defend her country—through national security science.
The interest in SARA at the Laboratory continues to grow. Tim Goorley, another SARA mentor, wishes the mentor-student relationship could continue past the summer months. "I'd like to see this program develop in a way that allows the students to continue working with us even after they go back to their academies."
Hit the Ground Running
The students were impressed with the research and capabilities of the Laboratory, and in turn, they impressed the staff members who worked with the students. "I was surprised at their level of interest," says Avneet Sood of the Computational Physics Division, speaking of the students he worked with. "We're using gold-standard codes here, and their enthusiasm had everyone bending over backwards to accommodate them."
"They were all really passionate and disciplined," says Balasubramaniam. "They got here at 7 a.m. every day."
An often-repeated accolade from the students' Laboratory mentors was that they arrived ready to engage and took initiative, with very little nudging required—even though the problems they took on were new to them.
"We threw them in and told them it'd be a bumpy ride," says Sood, "but these guys are at the top of their class, and they worked very well together." They came to the Laboratory with good skills and hit the ground running.
And they had new ideas. "I had a very specific problem that our student was very capable of working on," noted another mentor. "He had three solutions in mind right from the beginning."
"We benefitted from them, and they'll benefit from their experience here," says Balasubramaniam.
Experiences Will Stay with Them
Ventura anticipates that the program will foster a long-term interest in science and technology, but he also thinks it will directly influence how the students approach their military careers. "In the future, many of these students will be officers, maybe even in the military's upper echelon, with a hand in shaping policy and making decisions about how problems get solved. They'll remember what they learned about the Laboratory's diverse capabilities and cutting-edge technology, and they'll know how that expertise can be applied to a host of national security challenges."
Sood agrees. "I've worked in a lot of intelligence programs and thought, these guys don't know what we do. Why not start these interactions as early as possible?" SARA students are "the next generation of leaders. Now they know there are assets and capabilities at LANL that they can rely on."
The Los Alamos experience will stay with them, says Ventura. "Our mentors and managers were deeply impressed and reassured that the next generation of military leaders will be well equipped to deal with whatever national security challenges confront us as a nation."
The students' experience was courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration's Military Academic Collaborations (MAC) program. MAC provides some of the funding to support students and faculty from U.S. military academies and ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) programs in summer assignments at NNSA sites, including the Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories.