Tristan Ashton

From SULI intern to data analyst at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Internship program: SULI
Year: 2017, 2018
Undergraduate institution: Trinity University
Major: Physics
Host DOE laboratory: Idaho National Laboratory (INL), Idaho Falls, ID
Mentor name: Donna Post Guillan

What was your research topic during your internship?
I built an algorithm to digitally reconstruct the approximate 3D microstructure of a material based on very limited information about its composition. These approximate solutions can then be used as inputs for simulations that study how materials behave under different conditions, which allows you to track how the material's properties change as the microstructure changes.

This topic gave me the perfect chance to develop my programming skills as well as try out a new field outside of my astronomy-focused degree. It was a fantastic introduction to full-time research, and I was excited to play a small part in a much larger and long-term project with tangible implications.

What was it like coming to a National Lab for your internship?
As a recent graduate, my two-term internship was an incredible opportunity to kick-start my career. It introduced me to research-based employment as an alternative to graduate school, and gave me a chance to develop my scientific skills while also partaking in various opportunities such as seminars, behind-the-scenes tours at INL, and travel. Although the social environment was significantly different from the undergraduate experience I had just left, my mentor was exceptional and eased my transition significantly. I felt there was less opportunity to connect with other interns than I would have liked, due to the fall and spring terms having fewer interns than the summer term. Regardless, I actively explored the surrounding countryside in my free time, visiting national parks and playing the unashamed tourist, even in frigid temperatures!

What do you currently do, and where do you hope your career takes you?
I am currently a data analyst for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). I previously explored opportunities as a college advisor and an astronomy programming director for a national monument. I hope to continue in my current role for a long time, and explore other opportunities within the field as I gain more experience. For example, down the line I hope to get back into public outreach for science and to become an educator, either as a high school AP Physics teacher or a physics professor at a community college.

Think of a time you experienced success during your academic or professional career. What did this success look like?
Generally, my successes are attributable to luck, excellent connections, and a small dash of tenacity. Being selected for this internship is one such example. Luck helped me discover its existence and choose the institution that had a scientist compatible with my experiences, connections allowed me to solicit strong recommendation letters, and my own abilities and tenacity shone through in my undergraduate studies. By capitalizing on the intersection of these three factors, I ended up with the SULI internship and, subsequently, the opportunity to publish my research as first author. Because of this experience, I try to cultivate my connections as much as possible. I believe that maintaining your interpersonal connections both socially and professionally will open up far more opportunities than you would ever find on your own.

Think of a time you experienced failure during your academic or professional career. How did you feel at the time? How did you deal with the failure and work past it?
I allow myself time to feel bad about a failure before anything else. It's natural to get frustrated and discouraged when you experience failure, and squashing that reaction never helps me. At the end of the day, I believe failure only reflects badly on you if you don't learn from it, so I find reframing the situation as a learning experience to be both beneficial and cathartic.

Did you make any important personal connections during your internship?
The most important personal connections to me are the ones that bring joy. This could be a fun friend to spend time with, a coworker who makes the job easier in some way, or a mentor who builds you up. My SULI mentor, Donna Guillen, encouraged me through every development and failure during the internship and supervised in a way that was perfectly compatible with my style of work. She even tried to arrange things so that I could stay at INL full-time after my internship ended! It didn't work out, but it was an empowering gesture of confidence in me. I credit a lot of the competency that I brought to my NRAO application to her, and I hope to work with her again in the future.

What are your values? How do express your values through your academic or professional career?
In whatever I do, I strive to bring joy, confidence, and flexibility. Your quality of life vastly improves if you're able to maintain positivity. Confidence allows you to tackle problems as they come without dwelling on their difficulty or letting it overwhelm you. Flexibility allows you to adapt if the other two aspects are lacking, and you'll be more prepared for that situation.

Notable Outcomes

Ashton, T.N., Guillen, D.P. & Harris, W.H. An Algorithm to Generate Synthetic 3D Microstructures from 2D Exemplars. JOM 72, 65–74 (2020).