Corps researchers discover future co-workers through mentoring

Published July 17, 2019
Corps researchers discover future co-workers through mentoring

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Environmental Laboratory’s Environmental Engineering Branch (EPE) hosted 11 interns in summer 2019. Pictured are mentors and interns, Top Row: Dr. Victor Medina (EPE), Michelle Wynter (EPE), Ryan Jarrett, Jesse Roberts, Martha Hebert; Middle Row: Dr. Afrachanna Butler (EPE), Alexandria Kessee, Jormarie Lopez, John Broussard, Dr. Catherine Thomas (EPE), Dameia Graham; Bottom Row: Luke Gurtowski (EPE), Dr. Edith Martinez-Guerra (EPE), Ilea Diaz, Michelle Carpio, Jessica Pope, and Jose Mattei-Sosa (EPE).

VICKSBURG, Miss. (July 12, 2019)-- Researchers at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s seven ERDC laboratories have provided some exciting hands-on research opportunities for both teacher and student interns this summer.

Ilea Diaz, a university student from Puerto Rico, thinks so, too. “I have a chemical engineering background, and as I started to look into all the projects that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is involved in, I saw that I could intern for an organization that is really big,” she said. “I think it’s great that what I do can impact and better the world.”

Dr. Victor Medina, Jose Mattei, Dr. Catherine Thomas, Dr. Afrachanna Butler, Michelle Wynter, Dr. Chris Griggs, Dr. W. Andy Martin, and Dr. Steve Larson, all of the ERDC-Environmental Laboratory’s Environmental Engineering Branch (EPE), are mentoring 11 interns this summer; one mentor from the EL’s Environmental Systems Branch, John Furey, is also involved with the group. Two of the interns are being co-mentored by EPE’s Dr. Steve Larson and the Geotechnical Structures Laboratory’s Dr. Chuck Weiss.

There are six Army Educational Outreach Program-College Qualified Leaders student interns; one Department of Defense-Science Mathematics and Research for Transformation Scholarship student; two interns from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez; and two teacher interns from the AEOP-Research Experiences for STEM Educators and Teachers program.   

“We’ve enjoyed great success in hiring through student programs,” said Luke Gurtowski, acting chief of EPE. “We’re developing them as researchers, they’re getting professionally fulfilled through career development, and it addresses the challenge of hiring people at ERDC who are from farther away.

“Brooke Petery, a general research engineer with EPE, is originally from Pennsylvania and attended Catholic University. She was a Department of Homeland Security-Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics intern in 2015.

“Kate Nye and Sarah Grace Zetterholm, both now research chemists in EPE, were hired full-time in 2018 after participating in the Army Educational Outreach Program’s College Qualified Leaders program in 2017.

“Relevant skills, what they’re studying and grade point average are all important to us,” Gurtowski said. “We need people who have done a lot of work in engineering and who have strong chemistry backgrounds. We’re also looking for chemists and botanists because we use phytoremediation for soil treatment on Army ranges.

“Plants have the tendency to absorb contaminants ⸺ some plants can eat trinitrotoluene (TNT), for example, bringing it into their shoots, so we can mow the plants and harvest the contaminants from the site that way.

“The EPE has been very successful in general ⸺ our reimbursable customers come back to us because we have a reputation for getting things done. The department is growing a good bit, so we need well-qualified personnel to support the workload. We look to student programs that we know we can rely on.  

“The interns all are working on projects within the realm of environmental treatment. That includes water and soil treatment as well as dealing with contaminants,” Gurtowski said. “We have diversified projects for them — it means they are doing some military and some civil works projects.”

“I was looking into engineering internships for teachers over the summer, and this program came up through an acquaintance at the University of Tennessee,” said Jonathan Broussard, a teacher from Austin, Texas. “Dr. Medina volunteered to host me and another teacher, Martha Hebert from the Academy of Innovation in Vicksburg, Mississippi.”

Both teachers are investigating harmful algal blooms.

“I’ve enjoyed my experience; it’s a different angle than my work back home. I teach high school-level physics and biomedical science, and I run a partnered research laboratory with UT Austin for the students. Being involved in environmental engineering has been really fun.”

“Harmful algal blooms are a big concern right now in the arena of civil works. In a couple of months, HABs in Florida and the Great Lakes will be in the news,” Gurtowski said.

The interns are working with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear contaminants as well. “We’re trying to find ways to decontaminate without using water, and we’re looking into ways to use graphene oxide bandages,” he said. “These ‘bandage technologies’ are a sticky way to remove the contaminants.”

The interns are Broussard, Jabari Carter, Dameia Graham, Hebert, Alexandria Kessee, Jessica Pope, Michelle Carpio, Ryan Jarrett, and Jesse Roberts, Jormarie Lopez, and Diaz.

“When I came on as a DHS-STEM intern, I really fell in love with this place and the type of work my laboratory (EL) does,” Petery said. “My mentors and supervisors in EPE, Dr. Medina, Dr. Griggs and Dr. Martin, were really inspiring and motivational. The whole experience made me realize I’d like to pursue my master’s degree.”