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ORNL Undergraduate Research Profile: Miriam Rathbun

Undergraduate nuclear engineering student optimizes computational calculations


ORNL Intern Miriam Rathbun

As part of the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship, Miriam Rathbun analyzed computing systems at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Center for Radiation Protection Knowledge.

In addition to speaking French and English, along with Spanish and Arabic, nuclear engineering student, Miriam Rathbun, can add computer programming languages to the list. The Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) participant at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) spent her summer using her language skills to remove the barrier between herself and the computer.

“I can’t just ask the machine what I want to know in my native language,” Rathbun explained. “I have to use its ‘grammar’ (code) and ‘vocabulary’ (hardware) to ask questions, and then I have to ‘interpret’ (analyze) the answers to draw conclusions.”

An interest in nuclear energy and technology led her to apply for the SULI program at ORNL. The program is sponsored by the Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) and administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, managed by ORAU.

Alongside her mentor, Dr. Mauritius Hiller, Rathbun analyzed the performance of computing systems used by the Center for Radiation Protection Knowledge (CRPK). In order to assess the impact of radiation to the organs of the human body, the CRPK runs intensive computer calculations. Rathbun’s research involved determining the calculation speeds and optimizing the process. 

“Overall, this work will boost the efficiency of long calculations and allow more work to be produced with fewer resources,” Rathbun said.

During her appointment, Rathbun ran calculations, but she also enjoyed researching the technical details of the machines of her experiments. Though the tests did not always occur according to plan, they each provided a unique learning experience. 

“Sometimes I would come in to find that a calculation I left to run overnight had failed in an unexpected way,” Rathbun said. “Although this might seem discouraging at first, every error actually gives me new insight into how the computer program runs and gives me new ideas about how to further investigate my research topic.”

After her research experience, she will return to the University of Pittsburgh to complete her senior year. Eventually, she hopes to obtain a doctorate degree. and pursue a career in nuclear science and technology research. Whether that research takes place at a university or a laboratory, Rathbun plans to dedicate a significant amount of time to mentor others just as she has been mentored.

 “So many people have poured into my life as I grow into a nuclear engineer, so I want to pass that help along to the generation after me,” Rathbun said.