Computer science student helps ensure safety of U.S. borders and ports

Katherine Fotion

Katherine Fotion (left) spent her summer in the ORISE-administered Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program testing radiation software. Fotion received first place in the Global Security category at the mandatory end-of-summer poster session. Her program coordinator, Barry Goldman, is pictured on the right.

Every year, thousands of tons of cargo arrive in the United States safely after passing through intense security methods developed by scientists and engineers in the nation’s top federal facilities. Katherine Fotion, a master’s student at San Francisco State University (SFSU), spent her summer as part of this frontline team, testing software that will help ensure America’s borders—and its citizens—are protected from outside threats.

In the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore, California, Fotion conducted research in the lab’s “N” nuclear research program. Her task was to run tests on software called the Radionuclide Analysis Kit (RNAK) that will be used at U.S. borders and ports to detect radioactive items and their source nuclide(s), or atom(s) responsible for emitting the radiation.

The DHS HS-STEM Program provides undergraduate and graduate students majoring in homeland security-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the U.S.

Fotion applied to the program to gain valuable technical and analytical skills that could help her along her path toward becoming a top researcher in artificial intelligence.

“The innovative nature of STEM has always been what has kept me motivated, and my internship at LLNL surrounded me with some of the brightest people in the Bay Area,” said Fotion. “The lab is a breeding ground for ideas.”

Fotion’s summer research goal was to determine whether removing rare nuclides from RNAK’s library would improve the overall performance of the software. If “rare nuclide A” was removed from the library, for example, would the software misidentify the nuclide as a different nuclide B through Z, and how would this misidentification impact software performance?

After thorough testing, Fotion found that the software’s performance could not be improved by removing the rare nuclides from the library. This reaffirmed the effectiveness of RNAK’s key algorithms, Fotion explained, and allowed the team to fully understand the software’s capabilities to help scientists build more relevant tests in the future.

Fotion researched independently under the mentorship of Simon Labov, Ph.D, the Nuclear Security Physics group leader and the associate program leader for Nuclear Detection Systems and Algorithms in Global Security, although she had many unofficial mentors that also helped her along the way. This supportive, collaborative component of the DHS HS-STEM Program is a highlight for many participants, as are the lab-wide weekly science lectures given by laboratory staff geared toward summer DHS students.

“The topics have ranged from bioweapon attacks to explosives to simulating a beating human heart on one of the world’s largest supercomputers here at the lab,” said Fotion. “I loved to learn about the variety of projects here and the possibilities that my background and education can present.”

Fotion embarked on her master’s program in computer science at SFSU shortly after completing the internship, which Fotion believes was the perfect transition from undergraduate to graduate level knowledge. 

“Before arriving at the laboratory, I barely even knew what caused radiation, let alone how to adjust radiation spectra, how to operate a parallel computing machine, or how to test a machine-learning algorithm,” she said. “I went on to be one of the winners at the student poster symposium and had a successful summer filled with programming research. I would definitely recommend the program to anyone that wants to propel their tech career forward.”

The DHS 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.