By Mike Aldax
Standing before her peers and professional scientists in a conference room at the Chevron Richmond Technology Center (RTC) on Aug. 9, a typically shy Nhijae Barnett was visibly nervous. Who wouldn’t be? But it only took a moment for the Richmond High senior to break from her shell during her presentation. For the next 10 minutes, Nhijae discussed in clear detail her recent work in an RTC laboratory, where she used precision instruments to measure the density and API gravity of petroleum liquids alongside her Chevron mentors.
“My first goal was to learn how to measure density [of types of liquid petroleum] in a lab using digital densitometers, both manual and automatic,” she said. “My second goal was to learn how density is used to calculate other physical properties that are important to the petroleum industry, and my last was to learn how to do pour and cloud point.”
By the time Nhijae had completed her presentation (the details of which went well over the head of this writer), it was difficult to imagine that she’s still a teenager.
This past summer, Nhijae was among six high school students who participated in the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED internship, which offers paid opportunities for students to work and learn in various laboratory settings across the nation, from universities like UC Berkeley and UC Davis to professional settings like the Chevron RTC.
Three of the six students are Richmond residents who spent their summer at the RTC. Chevron sponsors program interns annually. The company’s employees serve as mentors to the students, who work a regular 9-5 schedule over nine weeks. Volunteer mentors this year included Eddy Lee, Matthew Hurt, Maryam Deldar, Marta Lezcano and Hung Khuu.
Helen Chen, a Hercules High senior, spent her summer developing near-infrared and mass spectrometry models for measuring molecules like asphaltenes, which can cause operational problems at refineries.
Meanwhile, Adriana Ponce Mata, a junior at Leadership Public Schools, used industry-leading software to detect phases contained within a sample material via diffraction patterns.
The work these students accomplished over the summer wasn’t trivial and can have real-world impacts for Chevron, according to Dr. Elaine Yamaguchi, the Northern California coordinator of Project SEED.
Project SEED also provides opportunity for local low-income students interested in pursuing STEM in college and in their career, added Toni Miao, a longtime Chevron chemist who has volunteered in the internship program for 15 years.
“We are scientists, we are chemists, and we want to have more young people, especially girls in the local community, go to college and eventually contribute to the scientific community, including here at Chevron,” Miao said.
Catherine Simpson, who teaches chemistry and environmental sciences at Richmond High, has participated in Project SEED for 10 years. She said pretty much all students who she recommended as Project SEED interns at Chevron have gone on to work within some realm of the sciences. One of her students, who worked for Miao as a SEED student, currently works for Chevron.
As a Project SEED intern, “You are becoming a real scientist,” Simpson said.
Simpson lauded efforts at the Chevron RTC to serve as a training ground for local students.
“Chevron is right in the neighborhood, some of the kids take their bikes here,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to bridge the gap between not understanding what opportunities are available [in STEM], and being immersed in that very opportunity in the field.”
To learn more about Project SEED, visit the American Chemical Society webpage here.