Printed on: September 28, 2013

INL offering real-world experience


REXBURG --Getting inside a reactor first requires getting inside a laboratory. And now Idaho National Laboratory is showing more Brigham Young University-Idaho physics students how to turn notebooks filled with complex math into real-world science.

Former physics student Aaron Butterfield was hired by INL after he graduated from BYU-Idaho in July.

Butterfield is a computational physicist, specializing in writing computer code that programs mathematical equations into a supercomputer. Using advanced simulation technology to mimic dangerous or expensive real-world environments, the "MARMOT" code models the inside of a nuclear reactor.

He landed the job because of an unexpected internship.

Until recently, the BYU-Idaho Physics Department had had very few students intern at INL.

Despite that, Butterfield was encouraged to apply. At first he was turned down. When a graduate student's plans changed, however, an opening was created for Butterfield.

"They gave me very basic things in the beginning," he said. "But then I started programming and they liked my skills, they thought I was efficient and they wanted to keep me on."

Recent graduate and adjunct BYU-Idaho faculty member Joe Hill had a similar opportunity because of a site internship and collaborative work with INL scientists.

Hill worked with INL scientist Paul Millett, who recently accepted a professor position at the University of Arkansas. After Millett left, he helped Hill secure a graduate student research position as a doctorate mentor at the university.

Both Butterfield and Hill are examples of the growing relationship between INL and the BYU-Idaho physics department.

The collaboration began with physics faculty member Evan Hansen and INL computational material scientist Michael Tonks. While preparing to teach a computational physics course, Hansen was approached by Tonks, who offered his expertise as a real-world resource for students studying that branch of physics.

"I suggested we have some of the best computational scientists around and that maybe we could help," Tonks said.

As a resource, INL provides BYU-Idaho students with internship opportunities and technical training for computational classes. But most of all, INL provides a glimpse into how numbers on a page become real scientific practice, Hansen said.

"Our students get to read scientific articles by people we can meet and see where they are working and what they are doing, which is really cool," Hansen said. "It adds a lot of depth -- instead of just sitting in a classroom handing in homework, our students really get a sense of becoming a computational physicist."

Tonks said the relationship also benefits the lab.

"This gives us access to a large pool of talented students to hire as interns," Tonks said. "But also any work we can do to help the next generation of scientists be better prepared and more familiar with work being done in nuclear energy will really benefit the lab."