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It's All About Location

U of I Student's Practical Experience in Idaho Falls Leads to Job Offer

Published online: Jan 04, 2024 Trends in Education
Viewed 4645 time(s)

Story by Danae Lenz 

Idaho National Laboratory offers one of the best internship programs in the United States, making its proximity to university students in Idaho Falls a game changer for their careers.

For Sam Root, University of Idaho’s partnership with INL led to an internship at the lab and a job offer there, too.

“It has been a positive networking opportunity because even before I started working with INL, I was making connections at INL, which was the goal: having those relationships readily built,” said Root, a Minnesota native and full-time nuclear engineering master’s student at U of I Idaho Falls.

Root knew he wanted to earn a graduate degree so he could go into the clean energy sector.

“The relationship with Idaho National Lab that the Idaho Falls campus has brought me here to Idaho,” Root said.

And he’s far from alone in benefiting from that relationship. 

'A Win-Win All Around’

INL was recently named No. 89 overall in the 2024 Vault Top 100 Best Internships and is the only national lab on the list. INL hosted 527 university interns — 40% of whom were pursuing graduate degrees — during the 2023 fiscal year that ended in September. 

So, Idaho Falls students are not just getting degrees but many of them are also concurrently working at a world-renowned nuclear laboratory as interns. Through these internships, students have a rare opportunity to work with experts, experience hands-on training with state-of-the art equipment and start their careers running.

People are seen at Idaho National Laboratory during an Intern Career Fair.

Making the list of best internships is a point of pride for INL.

“This recognition is a testament to the dedication and hard work of our interns, mentors, managers and the entire INL community,” said Michelle Thiel Bingham, INL’s National University Programs director. “We are proud to provide an environment where interns can learn, grow and make meaningful contributions.”

While internships offer career-changing benefits and job opportunities for students, Philip Reppert, director of Center for Advanced Energy Studies and Idaho university collaborations at INL, said the lab gets perks from the relationship as well.

“You’re not hiring an unknown quantity, you’re hiring a known quantity, which is always a good thing in the hiring process,” he said. “Because whenever you hire somebody, you’re always taking a risk. Do they match up to the paper that they presented? When you’ve worked with them as students you know their paper qualifications match with what I actually know.”

Reppert added, “It is a win-win all around.”

Root, who was set to defend his thesis in December, has been offered a job at the lab after the acceptance of his thesis, which focuses on designing a power controller for a molten salt microreactor.

“It's a conceptual design; one hasn't ever been built before,” he said. “But what I'm doing is trying to make it more responsive to changing load demand. So, if the grid needs more power, it can make more power.”

Learning From Everyone

The Center for Advanced Energy Studies is a collaboration between INL, U of I, Idaho State University and Boise State University, featuring 10 specialized labs under the CAES umbrella. Launched in 2009 with the mission to solve energy problems, it has since seen scores of students thrive and go on to pursue their dreams.

“The way CAES operates is unique,” Reppert said. “I have been looking and I have not found any other national labs that have this type of collaborative relationship where faculty and students can easily work side by side.”

Students from all three universities work, study and research under the same roof as INL experts, allowing them easy access to equipment and people who can teach them.

“These students are able to access the best microscope in the world that can handle radioactive material,” Reppert said. “For an Idaho student or any student to be able to have access to that literally across the hallway from where your desk is, that provides them with capabilities they can't get anywhere else. That's what they're getting in the CAES building — the ability to access equipment and researchers at INL that they wouldn't be able to access anywhere else.”

Root said that in addition to the obvious plus-sides of having INL experts in the building, new knowledge has come from other places as well: namely his fellow U of I students.

“A lot of my classmates have been full time at INL, working on their degree part time or otherwise affiliated,” said Root, who is also a Nuclear Regulatory Commission fellow. “Even some of my classmates have been ‘Navy nukes,’ so they've actually operated a nuclear reactor. So, when the professor is talking about something, they could say, ‘Hey, is that right? How is this actually done on a sub?’ And they can actually tell you that hands-on experience, which is pretty incredible. You really learn a lot from classmates.”

Interns pose for a photo during the 2023 Intern Poster Session at Idaho National Laboratory, which hosted 527 university interns in 2023.


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