Nanolab high-school intern now first-year Golden Bear

by Saemmool Lee

A former Berkeley High School intern in the Berkeley Marvell Nanofabrication Laboratory Summer Internship Program for Young Women has returned to campus as a Berkeley undergraduate pursuing the sciences. Now 18, Violet Buxton-Walsh graduated from Berkeley High last June, and considers herself “a proud Berkeley legacy” since both her mother and brother graduated from Berkeley (in history and physics, respectively).

Buxton-Walsh participated in the annual summer program in 2017 in the NanoLab at CITRIS and the Banatao Institute headquarters in Sutardja Dai Hall. Her first project: “Developing a Mobile Electrostatic Chuck.” She initially found the lab overwhelming. “A lot of different tools, a lot of different people, and they all know what they’re doing,” she says. “That’s very intimidating to a high-school intern who hasn’t taken physics or calculus and has no idea how to operate machinery full of heavy metals and toxic gases.”

Throughout the internship, which was founded in 2001 by Berkeley Engineering Dean Tsu-Jae King Liu when she was lab director, Buxton-Walsh developed an interest in learning about how different processes work and why we do certain things in different ways. She says the program excited her about the field and made her want to pursue science in a way that she hadn’t considered before. Now she’s part of an undergraduate research project in geography, and though undeclared, she’s intending to double-major in atmospheric science and geography.

How did the internship experience affect your interests and pursuit of a field?

First of all, when I was applying to colleges, it made me competitive for programs that I wasn’t otherwise. I considered engineering and physics, because until I worked in the NanoLab, I hadn’t thought of going down those pathways. It also made the idea of undergraduate research a lot more approachable, because I had already worked in a campus lab. When I got here I was able to say, “I’ve worked in the lab,” and it was probably impressive because most Cal students can’t say that they’ve already completed required lab trainings for UC Berkeley.

What part of the internship enhanced your competence?

Asking questions was probably my best learning opportunity. My mentor [NanoLab process engineer] Ryan Rivers was big on questions. He would explain a lot, and I would understand maybe 20 percent of it. I was missing a lot, then I’d ask questions and felt like I had a much clearer understanding of how those concepts were applied in the real world.” I asked two types of questions: “I’m sorry, I just have no idea of what you’re talking about, can you explain the whole thing?” And then the follow-up questions, “Wait, you said press this button? After that, how do I turn it off?”

Your work is important in the lab, people want you to understand what you’re doing and how to do it. You’re able to ask questions that build fundamental understanding and technical questions that are very detailed and clarifying.

Would you tell us about your undergraduate research at Berkeley?

I’m part of an undergraduate research project with a geography professor through URAP [Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program], working on dating sediment layers around Mono Lake in the Sierras or in the eastern Sierras. We’re learning about historic earth climates and applying those conclusions to how the climate works and changes today.

How did you choose your research interests?

I was hoping to find something to address climate change and climate policy. Looking into it, I think earth sciences and environmental sciences are more directly related to those kinds of issues. I think my research in the NanoLab definitely helped me come to that conclusion, because I saw it as ‘research is research’ regardless of what field you’re in. The day-to-day can be very different. In the end, it’s just all trying to learn new things about the world, which is pretty cool.

What are your future plans for your academic or professional career?

For the short term, I would love to graduate with my two majors – subject to change. I want to go into climate science or policy. I’m not sure how I want to do that, but ideally, I would love to work on projects that work on mitigation and adaptation solutions that are based in the physical sciences. I know I want to continue doing undergraduate research and explore a lot of the different ways you can do that.

What advice would you give the upcoming summer intern class?

I’d probably tell them, ‘You’re going to learn a lot this summer. You might not realize at the time that this is a really valuable experience, but it will become clearer if you stay in the sciences or maybe even if you don’t. And anytime you are around people who are brilliant at what they do and want to teach you and want you to ask questions, it’s going to be a good chance to learn.’

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Photo: Adriel Olmos