Amy M. Poling will sign on to the most advanced computer systems in the country today.
Instead of spending a semester abroad, Ms. Poling, a junior at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, is taking a semester Southwest at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where she is one of 25 students nationwide to participate in the Science and Engineering Research Semester.
The Liberty High graduate left her home in Gamber Sunday for the 16-week program, sponsored by the Department of Energy.
"What an honor," said Ms. Poling, 20. "I never thought it would happen."
Several thousand students apply each year for the chance to work at the laboratory. Their applications are evaluated for academic achievements and research interests.
"I was ecstatic that somebody looked at my information and thought I could do it," she said.
Ms. Poling also had to write an essay detailing what she wanted from the experience and how she would use what she learned.
"This may not be what I want to do when I graduate, but it's a step in the right direction and will get me where I want to be," she said. "This experience will really set me apart."
Participants receive $225 a week, as well as travel and living expenses. Ms. Poling will share an efficiency apartment with a young woman from Brazil.
"I hope we can communicate," she said. "I speak a little Spanish but it has been a while. It may be close enough to Portuguese." At Los Alamos, her assigned project is "the integration of multimedia and virtual reality for training applications." She smiled and said she could translate that title into laymen's terms.
"Virtual reality is like a 3-D arcade game," she said. "It is more interactive as it puts you in the middle and makes you feel part of it."
It allows the user "to get in touch with more than one sense and learn on more than one level," she said.
As will all participants in the program, Ms. Poling will prepare a research project and a graphic presentation as well as give a technical talk to her sponsoring lab group. Help will be available continually. Jill Hefele, a staff member at the laboratory, will serve as her mentor.
"Amy will be learning right along with the rest of us, the only group in the lab to study this application," Ms. Hefele said.
Ms. Hefele sees virtual reality, which is still in early development stages, as a "strong training tool of the future." Ms. Poling and other students may create programs that the lab will use in the future.
"Right now, virtual reality is mostly driven by the entertainment industry," Ms. Hefele said. "We are trying to give it educational purposes and develop engineering tools with it."
Ms. Poling, a math and computer science major at Notre Dame, has "lived in the computer lab" at the college. She said she will be exposed to more advanced systems at Los Alamos and the most up-to-date computer languages, all what she calls "on the cutting edge of technology." She feels completely prepared, she said.
"Notre Dame has given me general education courses and prepared me for the working world and for the working mentality," she said.
Her parents are thrilled with what they call the chance of a lifetime. "This is a fantastic opportunity that any person in Amy's field only dreams of," Shirley D. Poling said of her daughter. "This is a real education outside the academic sphere of college."
In addition to participating in 32 hours of lab work each week, Ms. Poling also will study data analysis at University of New Mexico to earn three credits toward her college graduation. Her adviser at Notre Dame has helped her reschedule any courses she might miss on the Baltimore campus this spring.
Ms. Poling said she is looking forward to touring New Mexico, especially Santa Fe and Taos, which are fairly close. The program includes "exciting field trips" along with educational activities.
Her parents gave her a mountain bike to help her get a good look at the state, known as the Land of Enchantment. In anticipation of views from the heights, she packed her rock-climbing equipment.
Ms. Poling had hoped to have her cat, Yager, for a traveling companion. She heard the lab needed a mouser and Yager could have filled the slot. The feline was unwelcome in the student housing and full-time life in the lab would have made Yager unhappy, she said. He is staying here with friends.
The experience at Los Alamos will help her narrow down what she wants to do, she said. She may even reapply for a job there after she graduates from Notre Dame next year.
"I don't know what I will be doing 10 years from now, but I hope it's something that makes me happy," she said.