Feature Story | 8-Feb-2023

Mentors matter: Championing the future STEM workforce

STEM mentoring creates pathways for early career professionals and interns

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

By Carolyn Kim

Ever since he was in middle school, Isidro Pantoja Garcia knew he wanted to be an engineer. This passion stayed with him throughout school and, during his junior year while studying at Washington State University Pullman his friend shared an opportunity to intern with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). While he didn’t realize it then, it was this moment that would launch his science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career.

In Spring 2020, Garcia applied to the Department of Energy’s workforce development for teachers and scientists program—Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI), and was accepted for the following summer. While many STEM internships elsewhere had been closed due to COVID-19, PNNL accommodated creative ways to continue to provide internship opportunities for students. Through this internship, Garcia gained both a SULI STEM mentor—Cheslan Simpson, a PNNL physicist, and a machine learning mentor—Thomas Grimes, a data scientist.

Although Garcia was a mechanical engineering major, he was introduced to nuclear and data science through this internship. “My internship ended up focusing on machine learning, which I wasn’t really familiar with. It was very interesting and opened my eyes to more of the computer science field,” explained Garcia.

During his SULI internship, Garcia worked with a fellow intern, Jonah Cullen, on identifying nuclear materials using convolutional neural networks. Afterward, Garcia transitioned into a technology student intern, joining a project focused on scanning commercial cargo for radiation signatures. He also became a Student STEM Ambassador and continued working with his mentor, eventually joining PNNL full-time after he graduated.

Garcia points to the mentorship opportunity at PNNL as a driving contributor in creating an open learning environment and sense of belonging for interns.

“When you come into the internship, you don’t really know what to expect and you think that everything will be super complicated. That you’re not going to understand anything,” he shared. “Your mentor is there to help you through your internship.”

With the upsurge in interest and growing demand in careers in STEM, mentors play a significant role in helping shape the opportunities available to the next generation of STEM professionals. For Simpson, Garcia’s mentor, the decision to mentor came quite naturally, since he is about the growth and development of tomorrow’s STEM experts.

“Mentoring is an easy way to introduce and inspire other minorities to pursue STEM careers,” he shared. “There are a lot of challenges ahead in this world that require STEM-based solutions and we need everyone to pitch in. Mentoring is a key ingredient for educating the next generation of STEM practitioners.”

As an engineer, Garcia continues to see the power of mentorship, now serving as a mentor to other interns at PNNL while also continuing to benefit from seasoned PNNL researchers who continue to mentor him.

For him, mentoring is about creating a sense of belonging in the STEM community and having an open mindset toward learning. 

“As a mentor, I try to make people feel comfortable and to let them know that I’ll be there. They can just send me a question and not be afraid to ask,” he shared. “I encourage students to not be afraid to apply for opportunities like these, because professionals know you’re not an expert. They’ll be here to help guide you to success.”

As an early career STEM professional, Garcia knew he wanted to continue to have a mentor and found the opportunity through a project he worked on with colleagues. “The mentor I have now is Jesse Willett. He knew I was a young engineer and he asked if I had a mentor,” Garcia explained. Now regularly connecting, Garcia credits this relationship with supporting his professional growth as an engineer.

Each year PNNL approximately has 1,300 interns come to the laboratory, each being connected with a dedicated mentor to help them grow and learn.

“Throughout my life, women and men have given their time to make me a better researcher. Mentoring is one way to repay their efforts; a natural way to ‘pay-it-forward’” explained Simpson. “With Isidro, I saw an individual who was quite but ambitious, willing to learn, and willing to take feedback. It was a pleasure working with him and watching his growth.”

About the PNNL internship program

PNNL welcomes approximately 1,300 high school, undergraduate, and graduate students annually through a suite of programs, including the DOE’s workforce development for teachers and scientists  Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships program and the Community College Internships program. Interested students can learn more at the PNNL STEM Internships website.


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science. For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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