Partnership expands pathway to careers in renewable energy
MSU Denver and NREL formalize avenues to research professions for aspiring scientists.
Metropolitan State University of Denver has for years been sending students to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to take advantage of world-class internship and employment opportunities. The Department of Physics began sending students to NREL for internships and research projects as early as 2016.
MSU Denver and NREL will officially cement that successful bond by launching a formal partnership through a new Memorandum of Understanding, which will be signed on Nov. 14. The agreement aims to strengthen career pathways for students while providing more opportunities for students and faculty members to collaborate on research and funding opportunities.
NREL, one of 17 national laboratories operated by the Energy Department, has been a national leader in sustainable-energy research for decades and is focused on cutting-edge clean energy technologies such as solar, wind, marine, advanced transportation and more. Golden-based NREL’s close proximity to MSU Denver allows for connections to the University’s talent pool of career-ready graduates, said Megan Lazorski, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Chemistry who holds a joint appointment with MSU Denver and NREL.
“NREL is justifiably proud of how many MSU Denver students have joined them for internships and then thrived,” she said. “I’ve seen plenty of my own students go on to find long-term employment with NREL or use their experience as a launchpad for a successful career.”
Joel Miscall is one such success story. He credits MSU Denver’s Chemistry program, which offered multiple research opportunities, small class sizes and collaborative teachers, for boosting critical-thinking and research skills.
But equally important, NREL stood ready to harvest his talent. After Miscall completed a yearlong postgraduate internship program, the organization immediately took him on as a research technician. He currently focuses on plastics deconstruction and upcycling at NREL.
The whole experience has been especially transformative for Miscall. Before deciding to go back to college, he had spent several years working long shifts in tough jobs.
“I was a delivery driver and a restaurant manager at multiple Quizno’s restaurants before I made the best decision of my life and signed up at MSU Denver,” he recalled. “Even today, I’ll often pause for a moment, just to be grateful that I no longer have to get up at 1 a.m.,” he said. “And also, to remember that I now get to do what I love.”
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The new agreement between NREL and MSU Denver will likely lead to yet more avenues for collaboration via internship opportunities, joint research and workforce development, Lazorski said. But it also reinforces and highlights the mutually beneficial nature of an already-successful partnership.
“I am excited to explore additional opportunities for MSU Denver and NREL to work together to accomplish the missions of both institutions,” said Ed Wolfrum, Ph.D., principal researcher and manager of renewal resources and enabling sciences at NREL, “and to help move the world to a sustainable future.”
Additionally, NREL understands and appreciates MSU Denver’s diverse student population, Lazorski said, noting that MSU Denver, a federally accredited Hispanic-Serving Institution, is among the most diverse institutions of higher learning in Colorado.
Recruiting from MSU Denver helps NREL progress toward its goal to build a more inclusive and welcoming workforce while providing valuable opportunities to students, particularly those from underrepresented communities, Lazorski said.
The partnership also helps pave the way for NREL to attract researchers who are not only qualified but are a good fit for the world-renowned research laboratory, she added.
Azure Avery, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Physics, also has a joint appointment with MSU Denver and NREL and has a long history of making connections between NREL and students.
“My students have worked at NREL as interns and researchers and have gone on to graduate school and gotten jobs in the industry based on that work,” Avery said. “It’s a really exciting opportunity for them.”
MSU Denver alumna Zofia Tillman is a perfect example. She went from student intern to valued NREL employee and is scaling the career ladder.
Tillman joined NREL as an undergraduate intern while working toward her Chemistry degree at MSU Denver. Then, she stayed on as a graduate intern. When she completed her internship, NREL immediately hired her as a research technician. And a year after that, she became a researcher and is the lead on near-infrared spectroscopy for her group.
“The hardest part of any job search can be establishing your credibility and professional bona fides to people who don’t know you,” said Tillman. “Getting my internship position at NREL gave me a vital foot in the door, from where I was able to personally prove to my future employers that I could do the work.”