In order to develop the 21st century workforce for economic prosperity and global leadership, the U.S. needs to increase the number of STEM researchers while simultaneously preparing the next generation for a myriad of careers within higher education, national laboratories, and private industry. Graduate research programs that couple learning experiences at a university with real-world hands-on experience in a national laboratory better prepares students for scientific and technical careers while allowing them to gain work experience in areas of research related to their chosen field.

Washington State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are doing just that. Through the PNNL-WSU Distinguished Graduate Research Program (DGRP), students have the unique opportunity to gain knowledge in the classroom at WSU while being mentored by a graduate committee comprised of WSU faculty and PNNL scientists on research in a national laboratory. The DGRP was created in 2017 and plays an important role in training the next generation of researchers and scholars in fundamental science and applied research relevant to energy, earth systems or national security. The program fosters collaborations between PNNL scientists and WSU faculty through collaborative work with students pursuing their graduate research, often leading to greater scientific or technological impact than individual projects alone.

The PNNL-WSU DGRP is designed to help doctorate students work collaboratively with faculty at WSU and scientists at PNNL. In the DGRP, students complete their course work and qualifying exam at WSU and then transfer to PNNL for the remainder of their graduate program. This provides students the opportunity to leverage PNNL’s state-of-the-art research infrastructure and to work directly alongside their advisors and other collaborators at PNNL. The DGRP prepares the next generation with the firsthand, real-world experience of working in a national laboratory. Developing a highly skilled scientific workforce through doctoral laboratory training programs is critical to the advancement of science.

For example, research conducted by Xiaolu Li, a DGRP student who graduated in May with her doctorate, and PNNL scientists focused on bioconversion of lignocellulose to lipids, a precursor for production of biodiesel. Li’s research improved the understanding of principles and regulatory mechanism in converting underutilized components of lignocellulose by oleaginous bacteria. Shuo Feng, a DGRP student who also graduated in May with a doctorate, worked with PNNL scientists to develop high energy density lithium-sulfur batteries, which can be used in future power grids and electric vehicles.

Through programs such as the DGRP, graduate students gain experience in active engagement in collective laboratory discussions with senior peers while simultaneously putting their skills to action. For example, Feng was paired with PNNL’s Dr. Dongping Lu, who provided Feng with mentorship while working together on their research. Lu’s mentorship provided guidance to Feng, preparing him for the next step in his career and the professional relationships that will be built along the way.

The combination of skill development from learning in a classroom and experimentation in a national laboratory setting facilitates further critical thinking that often leads to scientific discovery. As a result, students are better prepared for the next step in their career.

“The DGRP was the gateway into my career goal of working in a national lab,” said Benjamin Schuessler, a DGRP student who graduated in May and is now in a research position with PNNL. “Working in a national laboratory setting is dynamic and constantly challenging your knowledge. Being a graduate student can be very isolating at times. But at PNNL, there are scientists and engineers with particular skillsets to assist you and your projects in creative ways. Learning how to utilize those resources is the greatest benefit.”

After 5 years, the DGRP has successfully advanced research collaborations between WSU and PNNL and established a growing pipeline of WSU Ph.D. graduates who are equipped to work in national laboratory settings. Since inception more than 40 students have been involved with the program as of fall 2021. Five students participating in the DGRP graduated from WSU this spring, three of which have accepted post doc positions at PNNL. The program provides an additional conduit for PNNL to train and recruit students. As a result, the transition from student, to post doc, to permanent staff is significantly more streamlined, which is beneficial for both the individual researcher and the national laboratory.

Alternatively, DGRP students may also choose to go directly into industry after graduation. For instance, Gowtham Kandaperumal, a DGRP student who graduated in May, will join Commonwealth Edison, a utility industry company based in the Chicago West region, this summer. His research specialization in the resiliency of distribution of grids, analytics and design will play a vital role in his new position.

Graduate programs, such as the PNNL-WSU DGRP, feed the workforce development pipeline. In turn, these programs help to strengthen and grow the nation’s research enterprise and ensure that students are prepared to go from the classroom to the laboratory setting. As we identify where investments need to be made to remain globally competitive in research, the DGRP and other similar programs are vital to the development of the next generation of researchers.