A mixture of excitement and anxiety crept in, crawling and slithering like a snake in my gut, a couple days before my early morning flight to Knoxville, Tennessee. Had I really signed up for 14 nearly uninterrupted days of lectures and experiments? Was I really volunteering to spend these last waning days of summer confined to the campuses of a couple national labs? But I swallowed that serpent of trepidation down, charming it and transforming it into feelings of excitement, because I knew that what was coming up was an opportunity that I was lucky to get and would be an incredible benefit to my future career.
The National School on X-ray and Neutron Scattering only takes a handful of students each year, and after it was all said and done, it was a lot of fun. Basically, it could be summed up by a variation on what friends at home were calling it before I left: Science Summer Camp (for adults.) Absent were marshmallows and campfires; log cabins and bunk beds; and a giant inflatable platform that would catapult you into the camp lake. But just like summer camp, friendships were formed quickly, and “see you laters” were said too soon. We did have a BBQ, and there was swimming and mosquitos and even a couple games of kickball.
My first flight crossed most of the US, stopping in Denver where I quickly hopped from one small plane to another, as we headed to Knoxville. Oak Ridge National Lab is a few tens of miles west of Knoxville in the tiny town of Oak Ridge, TN. I shared a cab with a few other summer school students, meeting the first of my cohort on that short drive. There were a couple students from Stanford, one from New Jersey, and one from Washington. I would meet many more, nearly 60 others, in those short two weeks. We were dropped off in front of a Comfort Inn in the same black asphalt parking lot of a Wal-Mart, across the street from a few other chain stores. Such a layout could be found in any other small American city, a place for truckers to stop overnight or a cheap hotel to sleep in on long road trips, in between more interesting sites and tourist attractions. For that week, for 60 PhD students from all around North America, the Comfort Inn would be our log cabins and camp bunkbeds; the hotel swimming pool would be our lake; and the Wal-Mart and restaurants and stores surrounding would serve as camp recreation.
The daily schedule was something like this: breakfast at the hotel, bus to Oak Ridge National Lab, a few hours of lecture in the morning, lunch at the lab, a few hours of hands-on experiments, dinner at the lab, bus back to the hotel, and then just a few hours at night to do whatever we’d like. Of course, we were a little limited on the last part; we didn’t have our own cars, and there isn’t much to do in a town like Oak Ridge. Besides the fun of Wal-Mart, there was a Mexican restaurant across the street, a bowling alley catty-corner (which closed an hour after we got back each day), and a small science center on the other side of the parking lot that had a few green fields and picnic tables. But we made the most of each night, either hanging out by the pool or playing games with dice and cards or going out for margaritas shortly before the restaurants closed in that sleepy little town.
The first day, a Sunday, after a few short lectures in the morning, we had a tour of the facilities. There is some history to Oak Ridge National Lab. It operates now primarily as a research center, one of only a small handful of sites in the world that can produce such a bright beam of neutrons. The beam is aimed at whatever sample a researcher might need tested and scattering, the same process that makes a dirty piece of jewelry less shiny, lets researchers “see” in ways that ordinary microscopes can’t. But before professors and their groups were testing theories and probing phenomena, Oak Ridge National Lab was extracting plutonium from uranium for use in what came to be the first atomic bomb. The reactor still stands as a historical site on the campus, and we visited and learned about the groundbreaking work that set in stone the name of this tiny green valley town in Tennessee.
There was not much else to Oak Ridge. A manufacturing plant, where massive 3-D printers spit out hot plastics to recreate the frame of an old US Army Jeep and where research was being done on new, effective ways to print metals, was one of the attractions we saw during the week. In the middle of the week, we had a barbeque on the shores of Melton Hill Dam. Burgers on the grill, volleyball in the sand, it was the summer science camp experience in Oak Ridge but condensed only in a few short fleeting hours. Otherwise, no days really stand out over any other; Oak Ridge became a routine of hotel, lecture, experiments, hotel; lots of fun and learning.
The week flew by; we shot neutrons at metals and liquids, replicating a broad range of exciting experiments that I had never heard of, and we finished the lecture series at Oak Ridge. A special event was in store for the last night at the facility. In true summer camp style, we ended the week with a talent show, where the other graduate students revealed their expertise in dance and vocal prowess. Entertaining talents, I have few (maybe I could have performed a poor rendition of the chemical symbols of the periodic table to song), but I was happy enough to enthusiastically help one of the program coordinators lip sync that Beetlejuice favorite, Day-o. But after the curtains were drawn (metaphorically and literally, in this case), our time in Oak Ridge was over. The next morning we were up early to hop on what would be a grueling bus ride across multiple states; 14 hours to get ourselves to Argonne National Lab, right outside Chicago, IL.
Lucky for us, obligations didn’t begin right away when we arrived at Argonne. The first day in Illinois was a free day in Chicago, probably the highlight of the trip. I realized that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit amazing places outside the country, but there are plenty of domestic diamonds, which I haven’t dug through much rough to find. Chicago is one of those sweet spots. We were dropped off outside Millennium Park, nearby the famous bean, Cloud Gate. It was a day through the city parks, greenspaces and odd wildlife sanctuaries in the middle of a bustling city, right on the edge of Lake Michigan. We found our way to museums, dug into the cheesy casserole that is delicious deep dish pizza, and found ourselves 96 stories above the city streets at sunset. The day ended too soon; we were back on the bus shortly, back to learning.
Midwest weather was a welcome delight for me; muggy evenings and summer thunderstorms were a fresh change from the constant sunny days back in California. Free time was limited, again, but we squeezed in a few games of kickball in the evenings, played cards and threw dice while doing laundry in the hotel, and watched the summer Olympics in our rooms. Our nerdy summer adventure ended fittingly on an extra exciting Friday night: final group presentations at 9 pm. We were up early the next morning to let others finish presentations, and shortly, after goodbyes to new friends, we were all back on planes, taking off in different directions, and on our way home.