Nuclear engineering student has best summer yet in DHS HS-STEM Program at NUSTL

Grant Schumock

Grant Schumock spent his summer at the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL), in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, helping improve the accuracy of pedestrian radiation portal monitors used to detect radiological contamination.

Grant Schumock’s interest in nuclear engineering started with a bang. 

“One day, my Advanced Placement chemistry teacher in high school was giving a lecture on the amount of energy released from nuclear processes compared to chemical processes. He was drawing a graph of energy release versus distance of two Hydrogen nuclei, and when they were at nearly zero distance—nuclear fusion—he violently drew a sharp line on the board indicating a large energy release and shouted, startlingly my classmates and I from our half-asleep daze,” said Schumock. “As I recovered from the shock of the aggressive lecture, I remained intrigued about nuclear processes and decided to major in nuclear engineering.” 

This past summer, that decision granted Schumock the opportunity to leave his fast food and retail uniforms behind for the first time. 

“While my jobs in the retail and fast food industries taught me patience and humility, I never felt satisfied working at these places,” said Schumock, who participated in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Program at the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) in New York. “At NUSTL, however, the combination of doing work that I felt was more important due to its far-reaching consequences and doing work in my field of study led to a very satisfying experience.” 

The DHS HS-STEM Program provides undergraduate and graduate students majoring in homeland security-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the U.S. 

Schumock is a junior in nuclear engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and applied to the DHS HS-STEM Program to gain insight into the life of a federal employee. He also found the project descriptions posted on the DHS website fascinating, and he envisioned contributing to society in a positive way. 

As a team member in the System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders Group at the lab, and under the mentorship of physicist Gladys Klemic, Schumock got exactly what he hoped for: an opportunity to impact real-world change on America’s safety and security. 

“The goal of my research was to improve the speed at which people are screened for external contamination after a radiological dispersal device detonation or other release of radionuclides into the environment,” said Schumock. “The potential benefits of improving these screening areas, called Community Reception Centers (CRCs), are reduced strain on local hospitals and avoidance of mass public panic. CRCs also serve to alert highly contaminated persons that they need medical follow-up to avoid serious health effects.” 

Specifically, Schumock worked to reduce the incidence of cross-talk between pedestrian radiation portal monitors, which look similar to the metal detectors used at airports but instead detect radioactive material. Cross-talk occurs when radioactivity on a person or group of people alarm multiple portal monitors simultaneously, explained Schumock, or when individuals waiting in line alarm one or more portal monitors. 

“Cross-talk creates confusion and delays. To avoid this, the portal monitors must be spaced out a certain distance, depending on the expected contamination levels of people entering the CRC,” said Schumock. “My project focused on collecting data about a portal monitor’s geometric sensitivity to various radiation sources.” 

To do this, Schumock developed code that collected data from a predetermined radioactive source at certain height, distance and angular specifications. Although he spent most of his internship developing this code and setting up the experimental design, no two days were the same. Some days, he exclusively wrote code; other days, he researched alongside Shmuel Link, Ph.D., a test engineer who helped Schumock brainstorm ideas, collect data and interpret results. 

Schumock gained several skills over the course of the internship that will help in the workforce—ones that may have been difficult to obtain in class. 

“In-class experiments in high school and at college are almost always dictated to the student in clear, stepwise instructions. This leaves no room for creativity and makes experiments feel like a robotic, unthinking procedure,” said Schumock. “However, this internship showed me that creative thinking is often required to solve problems for experimental designs.” 

Schumock enjoyed the DHS HS-STEM internship so much that he is now considering working for DHS, the Department of Defense or the Central Intelligence Agency—all agencies he was largely unfamiliar with before this experience. 

“The internship had a significant impact on my career plans,” said Schumock, who plans to get his doctorate degree in nuclear engineering or a similar field. “It was by far the most fun, interesting and challenging work experience I have ever had, let alone the best summer I have ever had. Everything about this experience was great. I even made some close friends during the internship and in New York City, whom I would love to see again.” 

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.