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Professionals comment on working in Department of Energy National Laboratories

Carl W. Myers, Los Alamos National Laboratories
Stephen H. Snow, Oak Ridge National Laboratory


Carl W. Myers
Los Alamos National Laboratories
Los Alamos, New Mexico

Geoscientists in the national laboratories of the US Department of Energy (DOE) work on an exciting variety of scientific and technical projects. Most of these projects are designed to acquire and apply scientific knowledge of the Earth's systems to help DOE achieve its mission in national security, environmental quality, energy resources, industrial competitiveness, and science and technology. For example, geoscientists in DOE national laboratories perform numerical simulations ranging from the geophysical fluid dynamics of planetary interiors, to studies related to global-climate change, to improved predictions of flow, transport, and solid-liquid-gas interactions in ground-water, petroleum, hydrothermal, volcanic, and atmospheric systems. They perform seismology experiments leading to improved means for detecting clandestine underground nuclear tests and new ways to image reservoir-scale and crustal-scale rock masses. They are engaged in a vast array of fundamental and applied environmental, geochemical and geophysical research projects. They create new instruments, such as new geophysical and geochemical sensors and sensor systems, as well as new technologies and new approaches for the deployment of those sensors and sensor systems and for the acquisition, analysis, and visualization of data from them. Many projects also represent the straightforward application of technical skills and abilities. Such applications include solving important environmental-restoration problems in the DOE complex. Research partnerships with private companies and collaborations with university faculty and students are common elements in many projects. New scientific knowledge of some aspect of the Earth's systems is a common result, as well as publications in the scientific literature and participation in professional organizations.

Geoscientists in DOE national laboratories work in an environment that has both similarities and differences relative to research universities, industrial laboratories, state agencies, or other federal agencies. One common difference, for example, is that the overall work environment for many geoscientists in DOE national laboratories is one of close proximity to an exciting mix of people with a multitude of scientific and engineering viewpoints and backgrounds, including physicists in high-energy and nuclear physics, chemists, material scientists, computer scientists, bioscientists, and numerous engineering specialtiesall in addition to other geoscientists. Another difference is that research teams, rather than lone investigators, are increasingly common and often consist of one or more geoscientists working with technical professionals from other backgrounds and with nontechnical specialists. The emphasis is on completing the work on time and within budget, and on producing a high-quality technical product or service at the end of the project. Excellence, teamwork, and flexibility are hallmarks of this environment.

Students interested in employment in DOE national laboratories should recognize that a graduate degree and high grade-point average are the usual minimal requirements. DOE national laboratories strive to assure that qualified ethnic-minorities and females are in the candidate pools for job openings. Entry-level positions are commonly at the Ph.D. levelexcept in some specialty areasand a successful postdoctoral fellowship is increasingly preferred. Students should assure that their undergraduate academic preparation avoids and, instead, that it provides a rigorous and thorough training in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, plus a set of geoscience courses that, ideally, will transcend subdisciplines of the geosciences and lead to an integrated understanding of Earth materials, processes, and subsystems. Equally important is the need for knowledge and skills acquired through liberal-arts courses, not only because liberal arts hold an intrinsic value in becoming an educated citizen, but also because of the direct relevance of activities in DOE national laboratories to societal needs. If possible, students should take a few courses that lie at the cusp between geosciences and other related fields with which they will undoubtedly come in contact or will influence their work; my own preference is toward engineering, computer science, ecological sciences, economics, molecular biology, and government.

The undergraduate years are the time to become thoroughly grounded in the scientific method, to develop problem-solving skills, and - most important - to make the computer a routine, integrated element of all activities in science and communication. The graduate years are the time to become established as a scientific or technical specialist in some field of geosciences and to make original contributions to knowledge or technology. Graduate research that produces one or more publications in the refereed literature, rather than an unpublished dissertation, is strongly recommended. Students should strive for a postdoctoral fellowship at a research university highly rated in the geosciences or at one of the DOE national laboratories that offers postdoctoral fellowships. During both the undergraduate and graduate years, students should seize every opportunity to learn to operate new types of laboratory analytical equipment, to work closely with an acknowledged master in a field of geosciences, to learn new types of application software, or to lead teams that have to produce something by a deadline. This is also the time to acquire a variety of field experiences through direct, in-depth observation and analysis. For example, students should visit a groundwater clean-operation, or a working mine, or a meteorological field station, or a drilling rig. While there, they should question the managers and personnel to learn about their roles, the flow of information and work in the operation, and the expected results from the operation. This is also the time to take a summer field course or to work as an intern with a company. Many DOE national laboratories have programs for undergraduate or graduate employment; these offer excellent opportunities for students to gain experience and first-hand knowledge.

The DOE national laboratories are in a state of transition driven by external trends. Key among these trends are post-Cold War changes in federal scientific priorities, pressures to reduce the federal budget, continued growth of concerns over environmental issues, and lessened national concerns about energy supply, at least relative to the level of concern in the 1970s. These and other trends are causing profound changes within many programs in the DOE national laboratories, including those that involve geoscientists. Past programs have been terminated (underground testing of nuclear weapons, for example), but other programs are continuing (the need for improved, science-based methods of radioactive-waste management, storage and disposal, for example), and exciting new programs are emerging, such as the increasing need to understand the impact of energy-related activities on air quality and the Earth's climate. This means that some DOE national labs will be looking for highly qualified, entry-level personnel in geoscience specialties related to these continuing and new or expanding areas. It also means that as long as these external trends continue, the hiring will be carefully targeted and probably limited more than in the past.

The work of geoscientists in DOE national laboratories can be exciting and extremely satisfying. Their science and technology products not only have applications of benefit to DOE, but also to the nation and to global society in general. Thus, most have a high sense of professional achievement and a strong sense of public service. Information on DOE national laboratories is available through http://www.doe.gov/.

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Stephen H. Stow
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Employment of earth scientists in the Department of Energy's (DOE's) national laboratory system is a high potential area. The DOE labs conduct research on a diversity of energy-related topics such as exploration for energy resources, disposal of waste materials from energy production, innovative alternative forms of energy production, the impact of energy-related activities on the environment, and many other topics. Locations are varied and include New Mexico (Sandia and Los Alamos Labs), California (Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley Labs in the Bay area), western Washington State (Pacific Northwest Lab), Idaho (National Engineering Lab at Idaho Falls), east Tennessee (Oak Ridge Lab), Illinois (Argonne and Fermi Labs near Chicago) and New York State (Brookhaven Lab on Long Island); in addition, there are employment opportunities at many other DOE sites throughout the country, primarily associated with soil and ground-water remediation. In essentially all cases, an advanced degree (M.S., Ph.D.) is required if one wishes to progress beyond a technical-support role.

The type of earth-science research done at the DOE labs is quite varied. For instance, considerable emphasis is placed on study of the Earth's crustal structure and evolution, volcanic systems, the potential for harnessing geothermal energy from the Earth, and seismic behavior of the deep internal structure of the Earth. The investigation of hydrologic systems is very important also; understanding ground-water flow in diverse rock types and terrains is an essential part of the laboratories' mission. As would be expected, the investigation of fossil-fuel (primarily petroleum) resources and methods for enhanced recovery of oil from reservoirs is also a high-priority issue. Part of the energy cycle involves the burning of fossil fuel and the generation of carbon dioxide, which ends up in the Earth's atmosphere. DOE labs are heavily involved in assessment of the impact of fossil-fuel emissions on the Earth's climate and the possibility of global-climate change. Included in this effort is an emphasis on oceanography and atmospheric chemistry.

In recent years increased priority has been given to quantitative evaluation of the way in which contaminants migrate from historic disposal sites associated with the DOE facilities. Since the facilities were founded (some as many as 50 years ago), vast amounts of hazardous and radioactive wastes have been placed into ground for disposal. DOE is now placing great emphasis on remediation of these historical insults, and the challenges faced by the earth scientists are great indeed. Fundamental and applied research is being directed at understanding the mechanisms that control the movement and biological uptake of these materials, as well as ways in which to prevent the interaction of wastes with ground water. Related to this are ongoing efforts to help site a geologic repository for disposal of high-level nuclear waste from reactors. This is a high-visibility activity that involves many different aspects of the earth sciences at some of the DOE labs.

As might be imagined, the type of earth-science training required for employment at the DOE labs is varied also. Geochemistry, hydrology, geophysics, and atmospheric sciences are some of the more important disciplinary areas within the earth sciences. There is increased emphasis on computational resources in virtually all areas of science today and, in the earth sciences, greater competency in quantitative skills through use of supercomputers is realized today for such topics as ground-water modeling and climate-change studies. Earth scientists at the DOE labs have a varied work environment also; field and laboratory studies are commonly conducted. Interactions with many other types of scientists and engineers are the norm and interdisciplinary studies are frequent, especially in dealing with remediation of the contaminated sites and in predicting the movement and fate of hazardous materials.

In order to prepare for professional employment at a DOE laboratory, a graduate degree is necessary. Prior to even entering college, however, one should take as much science and mathematics as possible, and summer employment, perhaps as a field hand with an environmental consulting firm, is recommended. In college, a strong program in geology is necessary with minors in mathematics and/or another science. The graduate program is where specialization (geochemistry, hydrology, geophysics, for example) occurs. A student should strive to get a broad education at all levels in order to work in the highly interdisciplinary environment of the labs.

Because the research done at the labs has great relevance to our well-being, future employment for earth scientists looks fairly stable, although funding within the DOE system is somewhat uncertain at the present time. Three broad areas will dominate: 1) studies of the behavior of contaminants in the shallow subsurface and ways in which to remediate them; 2) global change; and 3) energy and water resources. Job stability is generally good also, as the labs typically do not indiscriminately staff up with the intent of letting extra staff go when budgets are tight, and all three of these areas should enjoy good financial support. However, federal budgets are increasingly uncertain in some research areas. Special efforts are generally made to hire well-qualified women and ethnic-minorities.

Work in earth sciences at the DOE labs is very challenging and probably unlike employment elsewhere, when one considers the type of research (both basic and applied) problems faced in the interdisciplinary work environment. One can become involved in activities that have regional, national, and even global importance. Nowhere else can one find challenging projects of the size and complexity as are found within the DOE lab system.

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