Benjamin Kaiser, undergraduate at Elon University, sits aboard an aircraft just returned from a test flight for ARES, short for Airborne Radiological Enhanced-sensor System, or a computerized system that is flown on an aircraft to detect radioactive material on the ground or in the air. (Photo courtesy of Nancie Nickels, RSL, NSTec)
Benjamin Kaiser, a physics major from Elon University, spent his summer in northeast Las Vegas, not tossing around dice, but instead playing it safe for a newly developed airborne radiation detector, ARES or the Airborne Radiological Enhanced-sensor System. For 10 weeks, Kaiser focused his time on ensuring the air and ground data gathered from ARES, a computerized system flown on an aircraft, was accurate.
Kaiser was a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Program, which is a summer internship for undergraduate students majoring in a homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) discipline. Students in the program conduct research at a variety of federal research facilities across the U.S., such as the Remote Sensing Laboratory (RSL) of National Security Technologies, LLC (NSTec), where Kaiser was stationed.
In collaboration with his mentors, senior scientist Russell Malchow, Jr., Ph.D., and principal scientist Eric Wagner, Ph.D., Kaiser created diagnostic software using Python, which could extract land and sky data from ARES and compare it against existing radiation mapping software to ensure quality control of the data. The program enabled the ARES radiation researchers to immediately spot any potential issues with the data and address the problem.
A typical day for Kaiser revolved around whether ARES was being flown or not. If it was a flight day, ARES flew in the morning and afternoon and data was taken from it and the other radiation sensors at both times. For the days without test flights, most of Kaiser’s time was spent writing Python code to accurately perform the data analysis.
“I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with professional scientists at NSTec and it was exciting to contribute to the testing process,” Kaiser said. “Also since I’m unsure of whether I want my physics career to be in academia or the government, this was a great way to experience working in a federal lab environment, and see if it was something I would want to do in the future.”
Because of all of the coding involved in his ARES research project, Kaiser improved upon his Python programming skills, learned Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications in Excel, and gained general knowledge of data analysis, aerial detection systems, and different computer operating systems. As an additional part of the program, he even took two different radiological training courses to certify him for safe entry into radioactive areas and to handle sealed radioactive sources.
On his return back to Elon University, Kaiser plans to begin research on his honors thesis which will span the next two years. After graduation, he hopes to enter a doctoral program to earn a degree in physics.
His advice for future applicants is to branch out – “Apply to the opportunities that interest you even if you don’t think you’ll be chosen,” he said. “You never know what could happen.”
The 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.