Texas A&M: Texas A&M Leads $2 Million Traineeship Effort For DOE National Isotope Program

Texas A&M University-led consortium has been awarded a two-year $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to establish a first-of-its-kind traineeship program in isotope research and development, production and processing that aims to develop the future isotope production workforce for the nation and the DOE Isotope Program (IP).

Texas A&M will serve as the isotope traineeship coordination (ITC) site in collaboration with a team of 17 institutions — 14 institutions of higher education (eight of which are minority-serving institutions) and three DOE national laboratories (Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory).

The unprecedented investment represents a concerted effort to boost exposure to the field of isotope science and accelerate the time it typically takes for a junior scientist to enter the workforce. Each day, these critical people and positions make untold contributions to the nation’s prosperity and security in support of DOE IP activities, including producing critical isotopes in short supply with broad applications in medicine, national security, domestic and global industry, and discovery research.

“The DOE Isotope Program supports novel isotope production and processing activities at a suite of world-class facilities throughout the federal complex and at universities,” said DOE Isotope Program Director Jehanne Gillo. “To ensure a strong and innovative program in the future, it is critical to nurture a broad and diverse workforce.”

Texas A&M Regents Professor of Chemistry and Cyclotron Institute Director Sherry J. Yennello serves as the principal investigator and director for the novel ITC collaboration, known as the Horizon-broadening Isotope Production Pipeline Opportunities (HIPPO) program, which features 17 co-principal investigators. HIPPO will broaden and diversify the next-generation workforce by promoting innovative and transformative approaches to isotope production and processing as well as student recruitment and preparation.

“The production of key radioisotopes is important to our nation’s medical, industrial and scientific infrastructure,” said Yennello, who also directs the Texas A&M Nuclear Solutions Institute and the DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Center for Excellence in Nuclear Training And University-based Research (CENTAUR). “Well-educated, experienced scientists are necessary to produce high-quality isotopes. Exceptional workforce development and excellent research are a natural pairing. It is imperative to recruit widely and educate effectively to ensure the continued availability of important isotopes.”

The HIPPO team plans to recruit a diverse population of approximately 20 undergraduate and 10 graduate students currently enrolled at the participating institutions. The goal is to expose students to a broad swath of isotope production-related activities while focusing on specific isotope production research projects that can be contextualized to trainees’ own research careers via collaborative networking and a variety of in-person and virtual training mechanisms at national laboratory and university isotope network production sites involving both HIPPO and peer mentors.

In addition to their regular research activities, graduate students will make weeklong visits to both national laboratory and university isotope network production sites, followed by one or more weeks at another HIPPO campus other than their own. In similar fashion, undergraduate students will spend a week at a national laboratory learning about isotope production and then one or more additional weeks at a HIPPO campus doing related research.

“Unfortunately, neither nuclear nor isotope science are standard components of undergraduate STEM education, which severely limits the number of potential students who might pursue education, training and careers in isotope production,” Yennello said. “To help broaden the career pathways of highly trained students and researchers, the HIPPO program will recruit from our member institutions and affiliated minority-serving institutions to build a diverse cohort of students interested in exploring their potential career opportunities. Allowing them to earn money doing science as undergraduates will relieve financial stress while also demonstrating the fact that they could earn a living doing nuclear science research related to isotope production.”

Beyond developing a pipeline for Ph.D.-level scientists to contribute to future isotope production research efforts, Yennello says HIPPO also will be vital for attracting students to fill opportunities at the bachelor and master’s levels. Skilled and knowledgeable technicians with backgrounds in chemistry, physics and engineering are highly sought after to fill positions as operators for accelerator and reactor production sites, to conduct isotope production, processing and quality control functions, and to perform maintenance of the complex equipment required for delivering on DOE IP missions.

“Students from many universities, especially institutions without strong nuclear science programs, may not even realize that their more traditional science education can be successfully applied to a career in isotope production and processing,” Yennello said. “By exposing students to both research and production facilities, the door will be opened for them to apply their expertise toward a variety of essential functions for isotope production and research areas.”

In addition to Texas A&M, participating institutions of higher education include Hunter College and Lehman College at City University of New York, San José State University, Stony Brook University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Utah and the University of Wisconsin-Madison along with affiliated minority-serving institutions Dillard University, the Texas A&M University Higher Education Center at McAllen, Texas Lutheran University, the University of Texas at El Paso and Virginia State University.

“Each of the core institutions currently conducts research related to isotope production and has experience with training excellent undergraduate and/or graduate students in science that is of interest to the DOE Isotope Program,” Yennello said. “Formally partnering in this isotope traineeship will afford students in isotope production at all the core and affiliated institutions opportunities in education and research and result in well-rounded and well-educated scientists ready to contribute to the nation’s isotope production.”