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It would be hard to rival Ames Laboratory senior scientist Mark Gordon’s success rate in attracting Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship students to graduate school. Since the SULI program’s inception at Ames Lab, Gordon has been a program mentor four times. To his great credit, all three of the students he mentored those four years (one of his students participated in SULI twice) are now pursuing PhDs at Iowa State University and are working for him in the Applied Math and Computational Sciences program at Ames Lab. Anyone aware of Mark Gordon’s love of the New York Yankees would say team Gordon is batting a thousand.

“Mark Gordon is a shining star when it comes to getting students to see the importance of going on to graduate school,” says Steve Karsjen, education programs director for the Ames Laboratory. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find many scientists throughout the entire DOE system who could equal Mark’s success rate in this area.”

Ames Laboratory’s SULI program started in 2005. That first year, the Lab hosted 10 undergraduates from colleges and universities around the country. Now just six years later, a total of 101 undergraduates have participated in the Lab’s SULI program, thanks in part to the great scientist/mentors they come in contact with at the Ames Lab and Iowa State. Sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the SULI program works to immerse undergraduate students in research settings at DOE’s national laboratories in an effort to encourage the students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, careers. SULI students produce research reports, PowerPoint presentations and posters. Students conduct their research with an eye toward writing scientific papers worthy of being published in peer-reviewed journals. To date, Ames Laboratory SULI students have published 14 papers.

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Up to bat (left to right) are Justin Conrad (SULI ’10 and ’11), Mark Gordon (SULI mentor), Caleb Carlin (SULI ’08) and Colleen Bertoni (SULI ’09). 

Team Gordon’s perfect batting average began in 2008 with the arrival of Caleb Carlin, then a junior majoring in physics with a minor in computational chemistry at Michigan Technological University. Upon graduation, Carlin enrolled in graduate school at ISU and began working in Gordon’s group. Carlin expects to graduate with his PhD in fall 2014. Ultimately, he says it was Gordon’s style and the overall style of the Gordon group that led him back to the Ames Laboratory and ISU following his SULI experience and college graduation.

“The Gordon group is very open and welcoming, always happily answering any question no matter how mundane,” says Carlin. “In this Mark leads by example, personally making sure students stay on track. In short, he not only has a mastery of theoretical chemistry but also a mastery of guiding graduate students.”

Ames Laboratory’s SULI program started in 2005. That first year, the Lab hosted 10 undergraduates from colleges and universities around the country. Now just six years later, a total of 101 undergraduates have participated in the Lab’s SULI program, thanks in part to the great scientist/mentors they come in contact with at the Ames Lab and Iowa State. Sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the SULI program works to immerse undergraduate students in research settings at DOE’s national laboratories in an effort to encourage the students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, careers. SULI students produce research reports, PowerPoint presentations and posters. Students conduct their research with an eye toward writing scientific papers worthy of being published in peer-reviewed journals. To date, Ames Laboratory SULI students have published 14 papers.

Team Gordon’s perfect batting average began in 2008 with the arrival of Caleb Carlin, then a junior majoring in physics with a minor in computational chemistry at Michigan Technological University. Upon graduation, Carlin enrolled in graduate school at ISU and began working in Gordon’s group. Carlin expects to graduate with his PhD in fall 2014. Ultimately, he says it was Gordon’s style and the overall style of the Gordon group that led him back to the Ames Laboratory and ISU following his SULI experience and college graduation.

“The Gordon group is very open and welcoming, always happily answering any question no matter how mundane,” says Carlin. “In this Mark leads by example, personally making sure students stay on track. In short, he not only has a mastery of theoretical chemistry but also a mastery of guiding graduate students.”

The SULI program itself, but to a larger extent his experience as a SULI student with Gordon and his group in 2010, provided the impetus for the “hard right turn” Justin Conrad made in his post-graduation plans from the College of the Ozarks in Missouri. Prior to completing his first SULI internship, Conrad’s intention was to finish his undergraduate degree and pursue an entry-level job as a research chemist, possibly with the military. But that changed when in 2011 the SULI program provided him the option to participate a second year in an internship with Gordon and his group.

“Prior to SULI, graduate school was just a word,” says Conrad. “Without Mark’s guidance, I would not be here.”

Getting students to Ames Laboratory and Iowa State for graduate school takes a coordinated approach that goes beyond simply analyzing a student’s background, according to Gordon. First, he says, students must be motivated, “wanting to learn, do cool stuff.”

Second, mentors must be nurturing. “If mentors don’t nurture, then it’s a total turnoff for students,” Gordon says.

Finally, comes the student’s “background.” Gordon contends all of his students are bright, which helps level the playing field in that area, so he says of the three, a student’s background comes in last.

Gordon’s own background, however, did play a key role in guiding Colleen Bertoni, who participated in the SULI program in 2009 as a graduating senior, back to Ames Laboratory and ISU. Following graduation from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in chemistry, she decided to stay a fifth year in order to take additional coursework in computer science. All that time, she kept in contact with Gordon, who helped her see how the two degrees could mesh with one another, which, ultimately, helped her make the decision to come back to the Gordon group and ISU this fall.

“Mark has been in the field a long time so he has a really good feel for what’s important in quantum chemistry and computational chemistry,” says Bertoni. “His knowledge of the field makes it very exciting. He helps you see all the connections.”

As for the future of these students, well, it’s as different as you might expect. Carlin wants to become an analyst for the government. Bertoni likes the appeal of doing research at a DOE national lab. Conrad wants to first find a job in industry and then return to academia as a teacher.

Whatever their ultimate decisions, Gordon feels he will have accomplished one of his main goals, which is to help maintain the flow of American students into science.

“More and more of our international students are educated here and then go home to their home countries, so it’s important to educate young domestic students that science is a really exciting and viable career.”

“This is what the SULI program allows,” he adds. “To have students come here and get their PhDs and get excited about science is really important to the future of our country.”

~ by Steve Karsjen