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The Journey from High School Intern to Undergraduate Researcher

By: Kathleen Tuck   Published 1:05 pm / June 29, 2016

Eric Jankowski and Kendra Noneman examine a molecule model in the Computational Materials Engineering Lab.

Eric Jankowski and Kendra Noneman examine a molecule model. Allison Corona photo.

Kendra Noneman doesn’t officially start as a full-time Boise State student until fall semester, when she’ll attend on a track and field scholarship and study materials science. But not the type to let any moss grow under her feet, she’s already tucked away almost of year of experience as a researcher in a university lab.

Just before the start of her senior year at Eagle High School, Noneman approached professor Eric Jankowski about the possibility of working in his Computational Materials Engineering Lab. Although she didn’t have any experience, and in fact knew only a little bit about what his lab did, she did know she was interested in materials science, she really liked working with computers, and she was willing to learn.

“He saw my potential, and took me through each step, like learning programming language and how to use software in the lab,” she said. “He was great about it. He had me read papers so I could learn some stuff, and we’d get together each week as a lab to talk about what I was doing.”

Kendra Noneman with her laptop computer in the lab.Her hard work is already paying off. The day after her high school graduation, she hopped on a plane to the National Center for Supercomputer Applications as part of a prestigious Blue Waters Internship for undergraduate students.

The yearlong program trains 20 students each year as supercomputer researchers, engaging them in petascale computing projects. The “peta” in petascale means “one quadrillion” or 1015, and refers to computing power: Petascale projects require more than one quadrillion multiplications or additions to be performed each second to get answers.

Following an intensive two-week onsite workshop, students return to their home campus to work with a faculty mentor. Noneman is currently working on a project titled “Self-assembly of small-molecule semiconductors.”

Jankowski’s lab figures out how to arrange molecules to give materials desired properties, particularly as they relate to plastics used in solar panels. Noneman is modeling fullerene molecules, looking at how their shape and charge influence how they pack.

“Now that I’ve completed the supercomputing institute, I’m using simulations, improving on them, and then running them on the supercomputer,” Noneman said. “Thanks to the internship, I’m able to use a lot of resources from the University of Illinois.” The Blue Waters supercomputer located there is the fastest supercomputer on any university campus.

Noneman is already looking ahead and hopes to continue on to graduate school after earning her bachelor’s degree, eventually earning a Ph.D. that will allow her to work in project management in industry.

“My advice to other high school students is to be proactive,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t know a lot about specific research subjects, but there are a lot of faculty members who are willing to help them learn.”