A native of the small town of Burnt Hills in upstate New York, Courtney Elwell is spending her first summer away from home. She runs every day, visits nearby beaches, and uses the rest of her time to develop her math and chemistry skills at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL) in New Jersey. One mission of TSL is to enhance homeland security by performing research, development and validation of systems to detect and mitigate the threat from explosives. Her 10-week internship with the DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), was top on her list of five opportunities for summer research.
Elwell’s fascination with chemistry was sparked by a fifth grade anatomy and physiology class. “I always loved to learn about the body and as I got older I learned that chemistry is happening in your body. It’s happening all around you. I’ve always thought it was cool how things just react and there’s no reason, it just happens.”
In her past couple of years as a chemistry and mathematics major at Union College, Elwell studied how to synthesize affordable solar cells. She considers her current research more analytical and hands-on than her solar cell work, which was heavily rooted in organic chemistry. After completing an analytical chemistry course in spring 2012 she was eager to “get her hands dirty” and learn as much as she could in the governmental lab setting. Research programs administered by ORISE across the states seek to grant students like Elwell a deeper understanding of their discipline, especially instrumentation and procedures.
“It’s been interesting to see the procedures and how they flow. I’m learning a lot just from that, just from shadowing my mentor and people in the lab.” Elwell considers meeting other interns a program perk, in addition to expanding the awareness of her discipline. “I’ve become more familiar with chemicals I haven’t really worked with before.”
Elwell’s project focuses on automating a procedure used in the lab to make detection standards. “I’m kind of a little chunk of a bigger effort to have a very efficient and reliable detection method for any threat along the lines of explosives,” she says.
Her main goal is to calibrate the dispensing system that deposits trace amounts of explosive onto test surfaces like plastic, clothing and leather. Lessening or eliminating the manpower requirements for standards production means more time for data collection and analysis to ultimately improve airport security.
Elwell often spends several hours a day with her favorite instrument: the gas chromatograph (GC). She uses the GC to verify the concentration of the explosive in her sample of interest, or analyte. The individual molecules of the analyte pass through a gas stream in a narrow tube known as a column. They pass through at various rates, dependent on how they interact with the column’s filling. When the molecules exit the column, a detector helps measure their concentration. Elwell considers learning how to use the GC one of her greatest achievements she has made in the program.
The internship’s strong component of independence is sharpening Elwell’s critical-thinking skills. She is adjusting to the hands-on, trial-and-error atmosphere. “I feel like I’m catching on and realizing what kind of calculations to make, [and] what to look for to improve my samples,” she says. Her own personal and professional development motivates Elwell to recommend the program to others. The fellow interns and chemists she meets at the lab have helped her realize the opportunities available within her discipline to affect change. “I think my life goal would be to learn as much as I could and help as many people as I can,” she says.