Los Alamos National Labs with logo 2021

Summer students explore national security science

Hands-on projects provide an in-depth understanding of nuclear nonproliferation.
July 18, 2019
A woman stands in front of a green lawn and white buildings.

Jessica Elder


“Students should be learning skills or techniques that will aid them in their future professional or academic careers.”- Travis Grove

By Elizabeth Brug

In the summer of 2018, Jessica Elder, a mechanical engineering undergraduate from Worchester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), took a road trip from her home in upstate New York to New Mexico. She came to Los Alamos to participate in the second G. Robert Keepin Summer Program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, an experience that would challenge and inspire her.

The G. Robert Keepin Summer Program is an eight-week intensive internship that pairs lectures, tours, and training with individual projects for an immersive exploration of nonproliferation. The program is a partnership between Los Alamos and the eight universities that form the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium (NSSC). The partnership aims to create relationships between students and experienced researchers. Program organizer Rian Bahran says that, ultimately, “the program strengthens the pipeline” by bringing new scientists to the Laboratory.

Each year the program accepts 20–30 students. Half of them are NSSC students for whom the program is required. Students in both STEM and policy fields from other schools (such as WPI) compete for the remaining spaces, with about a 30-percent acceptance rate. The selected students attend private activities and lectures as a group, thus developing a real sense of camaraderie by the end of the summer.

Bahran and fellow organizers Chloe Verschuren and James Miller, both of the Nuclear Engineering and Nonproliferation Division, receive weekly feedback from students and continually refine the program, striving to maintain the best parts from past years while letting it evolve with the Laboratory’s dynamic environment. Not only do they curate speakers, organize trainings, and find new tours, but they are also matchmakers. With student résumés in hand, they search for mentors and funded projects at the Lab to make the summer meaningful for each participant and the Laboratory.

“It is important to make certain that each student’s work is worthwhile,” says Travis Grove, who became one of Elder’s mentors, along with Jesson Hutchinson. “Students should be learning skills or techniques that will aid them in their future professional or academic careers.”

Elder was matched with Grove and Hutchinson in the Nuclear Engineering and Nonproliferation Division’s Advanced Nuclear Technology group. Her research focused on developing a theoretical model to predict uncertainties in period measurements and inferred reactivity.

Elder’s experience at the Lab was transformative. She sees elements of her summer research in her university classes, and she has shifted away from her initial career path in mechanical engineering to the pursuit of a doctorate in nuclear engineering. Her goal is to work toward a career in global security. “I believe nuclear power is essential for combating climate change in the near future,” she says. “By studying nuclear engineering and going into the field of nuclear safeguards—and into the Intelligence Community—I can promote the safe use of nuclear power while also focusing on the nation’s safety.”

A group of people stand on a platform in front of a crater.

Lab summer students stand in front of the Sedan Crater at the Nevada National Security Site. Program organizers felt that in addition to being immersed in contemporary science and policy, students should develop an understanding of nuclear weapons history, including seeing this crater.