GEM Fellows finish up summer at ORNL, head to national competition

GEM Fellows finish up summer at ORNL, head to national competition

For nearly three decades, ORNL has been an employer partner of the National GEM Consortium. The program that is designed to help under-represented minorities in STEM programs attend graduate school.

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August 25, 2017 — Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) hosted eight graduate students as part of the National GEM Consortium summer fellowship program this year—seven in the Energy and Environmental Sciences Directorate and one in the Computing and Computational Sciences Directorate.

The participants worked with mentors across the lab for 10 weeks in areas as diverse as microbial engineering and electrical grid design.

2017 GEM students, with mentors, judges, and other participants. Front Row L-R: Nick Jean-Louis, Joshua Benjamin, Anthony Villareal, GEM Consortium CEO Brennon Marcano, Jessica Velez, Matheos Asfaw, Bryan Blaise, Chukwuemeka Obikwelu, and Som Shrestha. Second row L-R: Ian Anderson, Ryan Kerekes, Jeffrey Munk, Brennan Smith, Josh Michener, Eric Pierce, Gautam Thakur, Paresh Patel, and Kreston Barron. (hi-res image)

GEM fellows at ORNL pitch their research during a technical presentation competition for a chance to advance to the national competition. This year, Matheos Asfaw, Chukwuemeka Obikwelu, and Jessica Velez were selected to represent ORNL at the GEM Annual Conference September 7-9, 2017, in New York City, where they will present their work during the technical competition.

Working in the Geographic Information Science and Technology Group this summer, Asfaw’s research focused on the design and development of software tools for identifying various land use types, such as schools and hospitals. He implemented natural language processing and big data-driven machine learning algorithms to detect land use just based on the names of points of interest entities. His approach has improved existing accuracy of several million land use records by 82%, with a peak precision of 93%.   

“My research project this summer was challenging and rewarding, to say the least,” Asfaw said. “I was put on a project that required concepts that I was not familiar with. But with the attentive tutelage and guidance of my mentors I was able catch up quickly and contribute to the research. I am extremely fortunate to have had the chance to work with such dedicated and gifted individuals. My experience at the lab has had big impact on my perception of the future, and I am sure it will be very valuable for my professional career.”

Matheos Asfaw, Jessica Velez, and Chukwuemeka Obikwelu won a technical presentation competition at ORNL and will represent the lab at the GEM Conference and technical competition in New York City in September. (hi-res image)

In the Power Electronics and Electric Machinery Group, Obikwelu’s work focused on early-stage research into protection concepts for radial multi-terminal high voltage DC transmission systems. These systems, part of the electrical grid, are designed to transmit power over long distances from generation sources such as large solar or wind installations. Obikwelu also developed network design concepts that could benefit grid operations and enhance fault  resiliency on these transmission systems.

“My work this summer was very interesting and I got to focus on conceptual designs to improve system protections,” Obikwelu said. “It was a great experience, exposing me to a good amount of information in different areas and allowing me to work with brilliant people. I established working relationships that I expect to be very useful in the future.”

Velez worked in the Microbial Ecology and Physiology Group on engineering microbes to synthesize valuable co-products in combination with biofuel production. She worked with a bacterium, Pseudomonas putida, that has been engineered to produce a nylon precursor, muconate, from biomass-derived lignin. Velez developed a technique to select mutant strains of P. putida that can produce higher concentrations of muconate.

“The science I was doing involved new techniques and equipment that were completely unrelated to the work I normally do, and gave me my first experience in genomic engineering of bacteria. I learned a lot, and had a great experience,” Velez said.

“I am always impressed by our GEM Fellows. Many of the them stay connected to ORNL either as collaborators or as researchers. GEM is an essential component of our workforce development program,” said Ian Anderson, director of Graduate Education and University Partnerships at ORNL.

“GEM connects ORNL with some of the nation’s finest rising scientists and engineers,” said Moe Khaleel, ORNL associate lab director for Energy and Environmental Sciences. “The innovative and highly technical research they conduct here furthers the lab’s mission while expanding the students’ professional network and making them more competitive upon graduation.”

The GEM interns and their mentors this summer were:

  • Matheos Asfaw, an M.S. student in computer science at the University of Southern California, mentored by Gautam Thakur of the Geographic Information Science and Technology Group, in the Computational Sciences and Engineering Division.

  • Kreston Barron, Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, mentored by Ryan Kerekes, leader of the RF, Communications, and Cyber-Physical Security Group in the Electrical and Electronics Systems Research Division (EESRD).

  • Joshua Benjamin, Ph.D. student in civil engineering at the University of South Florida, mentored by Brennan Smith, leader of the Energy-Water Resource Systems Group in the Environmental Sciences Division.

  • Bryan Blaise, Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, mentored by Alex Melin of the Sensors and Embedded Systems Group in the EESRD.

  • Nick Jean-Louis, Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Rice University, mentored by Som Shrestha of the Building Envelope and Urban Systems Research Group in the Energy and Transportation Science Division (ETSD).

  • Chukwuemeka Obikwelu, Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, mentored by Suman Debnath of the Power Electronics and Electric Machinery Group in the EESRD.

  • Jessica Velez, Ph.D. student in energy science and engineering at the University of Tennessee, mentored by Josh Michener of the Microbial Ecology and Physiology Group in the Biosciences Division.

  • Anthony Villareal, M.S. student in mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, mentored by Jeffrey Munk of the Building Envelope and Urban Systems Research Group in the ETSD.

GEM recruits high-quality, underrepresented students looking to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in applied science and engineering, and matches their specific skills to the technical needs of GEM employer members. Employer partners include national laboratories, leading corporations, universities, and top research institutions. ORNL has been a partner of GEM since 1989. More information on the National GEM Consortium is available here.

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