An interest in national security leads student to radiation detector testing for DHS

Robert Baker

A long-standing interest in national security made it easy for Robert Baker to find his way to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM (homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Summer Internship Program. The program, offers students majoring in DHS-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS mission-relevant area at federal facilities across the country.

“I applied because I am interested in the methods used to detect nuclear and radiological materials, as well as learning new methods of data analysis,” said Baker, a physics major at California Polytechnic State University. “I am also interested in protecting our nation from threats, because I love America.”

As a participant in the program, Baker conducted research at the Savannah River National Laboratory in the Research & Development division. Under the guidance of his mentor, Jean Plummer, Baker contributed to a new design for a data analysis code used to test and evaluate handheld radiation detectors.

“This code will help us compare useful information that can ultimately characterize the detectors more thoroughly and determine which ones better perform and meet our specifications,” Baker said.

Baker believes that an accurate, handheld radiation detector would allow police to detect the transport or presence of radioactive materials by simply walking around, whether at a sporting event, a transportation center or any other place where terrorist threats could be present. Simplified radiation detection as part of an officer’s daily operations could vastly improve and simplify our nation’s safety when it comes to terrorism threats.

The ability to test and characterize radiation detectors will allow DHS to identify which vendors should be funded for further research and development of their performance testing units, Baker noted. Ultimately, these developments could lead to radiation detectors that accurately tell the direction, strength and type of radiation-emitting sources.

“From my participation, I have seen and gained a better appreciation for how much time and effort goes into analyzing and characterizing devices,” he said. “Researching with the Department of Homeland Security appealed to me personally because of its applicability to keeping our nation safe.”

Having the chance to contribute to potential security threats through his research was not the only rewarding part of his participation, Baker learned new programming and device characterization techniques that will prove useful toward his future in mechanical engineering, possibly in the subfield of mechatronics.

“This experience has been very enlightening to me,” Baker said. “It has significantly improved my programming and coding skills, my understanding of the process of developing new tools, like radiation detection devices, and my understanding of the physics behind detecting nuclear and radiological materials. Also, learning the computer program Python, as well as the applicability and usefulness of coding, will help me with whatever engineering field I go into in the future.”

The HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.