Former participant finds future career path through two summers in the DHS HS-STEM Program

Holly Dixon

Holly Dixon, a former participant in the 2012 and 2013 U.S. Department of Homeland Security HS-STEM Internship Program is now in the first year of an environmental and molecular toxicology doctoral program at Oregon State University. (Photos courtesy of PNNL)

Holly Dixon had no idea she would find her future career when she first applied to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program. She was just interested in figuring out what kind of research she enjoyed. But after two internships, she emerged from the program with a career goal firmly in mind and is now pursuing that goal at Oregon State University in the environmental and molecular toxicology doctoral program. 

At the time, as an undergraduate in biology at the University of Puget Sound, Dixon applied to the 2012 HS-STEM Program because she had enjoyed another internship experience, which she completed the previous summer, and wanted to learn more about different kinds of research. The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is a 10-week research experience at federal laboratories across the U.S. for students majoring in a homeland security-related science, technology, engineering or mathematics (HS-STEM) discipline.

For her first HS-STEM internship, Dixon only applied for a couple of positions and was placed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., where her research focused on stable isotope analysis of tree rings as a nuclear forensics tool.

“Los Alamos was really an eye-opening and amazing opportunity,” Dixon said. “I found that I was really interested in forensics and using tools in the environment to gather information. So the next time applications came around for the 2013 HS-STEM Internship, I applied to a lot of different opportunities, wanting to see what other research areas I might find interesting.”

And that’s where Dixon found her match. Stationed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Wash., she conducted environmental risk assessment research. Revising a section of the U.S. Department of Energy’s huge Chemical Mixture Methodology dataset, she characterized which chemicals could be respiratory irritants and whether they would be severe, moderate or mild.

“At PNNL, I realized how much I loved research,” she explained, “and also how much I loved studying chemical contaminants in the environment and the different ways chemicals can affect humans.”

But the light bulb really went off for Dixon at PNNL when she participated in a conference call with toxicologists as part of her research project. “I just remember after the phone interview I kept asking people, ‘What is toxicology?’” she said. “Then I started gathering as much information about it as I could. I talked to other toxicologists at PNNL, extensively read about the career field, and then finally realized I had found exactly what I wanted to do.”

To Dixon, toxicology presented the perfect blend of biology, chemistry and the environment. It also includes quantifying and qualifying chemical exposure, which she really enjoys. Her choice was even further solidified after she was able to attend the 2014 Society of Toxicology Annual Meeting to present her PNNL research and network with other professional toxicologists. 

Without her time at both Los Alamos and PNNL, Dixon is not sure where she would be right now. “The whole experience was so influential to me, especially because I didn’t even know the field of toxicology existed before I did my second DHS internship,” she said. “It’s just crazy that now I’m in a toxicology program working towards my Ph.D.”

Now Dixon is happily doing rotations in the first year of her doctoral program at Oregon State. With a few years of graduate school ahead of her, she’s not quite sure what the future holds yet, but she’s excited to explore her options. “I’m just so lucky to be where I am and to have found my true calling,” she said.

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.