‘I am here to learn’: Research internships provide hands-on experience

Larry Bullock, a waste water treatment operator for the town of Woodstock, left, walks with Massanutten Regional Govenor's School student Annabelle Palmer, 18, of Woodstock, along the Bio1 and Bio2 beds at the town's wastewater treatment plant. Palmer, a Central High School student, has been an intern at the plant. Rich Cooley/Daily

Annabelle Palmer is an 18-year-old senior studying at the Massanutten Regional Governor’s School for Environmental Science and Technology and Science. Her home school is Central High School where she is on track to be valedictorian for Central’s 2018 graduating class

As part of her studies at Massanutten, Palmer is taking part in a hands-on, year-long research internship that is required of all Governor’s School students. She was offered an opportunity to intern at the Town of Woodstock Waste Water Treatment Plant.

“You get more of an awareness for the resources you are using every day,” Palmer said of her internship. “People spend their time on the river. It is a precious resource, and it is easy to disrupt it.”

Palmer plans to attend Virginia Tech to study engineering, probably civil engineering with a focus on the environment and needs to understand systems like the wastewater treatment plant.

“I am here to learn,” Palmer said. “I was excited to come here because I guess it’s another experience.”

Annabelle Palmer, 18, of Woodstock, holds the plastic fibers that help separate solids from water in wastewater treatment processing. Rich Cooley/Daily

She has been hands-on, grabbing tools and jumping into any project in any and all areas of the plant.  In the lab, she measured dissolved oxygen from water samples, phosphorus, nitrates, and ammonia.

She suited up in a full body white suit and helped clean and slacken membranes, which is one of several systems that helps separate solid waste from water.

Those membranes have an average lifespan of 10 years. Plant employees, with consistent maintenance, have managed to coax 14 years of use from the membranes.

Palmer conducted a cost-benefit analysis of a new system that is supposed to save on electrical costs. The current system sends a constant stream of oxygen into the wastewater to help it break down, causing plant pumps to use a lot of electricity. Plant administrators are looking at an upgrade that would occasionally send oxygen into the wastewater, meaning reduced electrical use.

Palmer broke down the figures and determined the plant could save up to $15,000 a year in electricity costs. It is up to plant and town administrators to decide if the plant would be better ahead financially to move to the new system.

Annabelle Palmer, 18, of Woodstock, works in the lab at Woodstock's wastewater treatment plant. Rich Cooley/Daily

Larry Bullock is a Class 1 wastewater treatment operator who has worked alongside Palmer, teaching her what he knows.

“It’s been a great experience,” Bullock said.

Kara Bates, a teacher at Massanutten, has been guiding and mentoring Palmer on her research project.

Bates said Palmer is unique because she is the first student to intern at the Waste Water Treatment Plant.

“She is a remarkable lady. She has really gotten a sense of what it takes to operate such a plant,” Bates said.

Annabelle Palmer, 18, left, stands with Woodstock wastewater treatment operator Larry Bullock inside the membrane filter building at the town's wastewater treatment facility. Rich Cooley/Daily

Palmer’s entire internship has gone well, but Bates said the cost-benefit analysis Palmer did was “very solid.”

“Forget college, she is ready for graduate school,” Bates said.

The Massanutten Governor’s School has required a research component to its studies since its opening.

“It allows them to find their passion and what they want to do,” she said.

Some may find that future career path and some may realize that what they were interested in is not what they want to do for a living, she said.

Palmer last year started researching algal blooms but changed that course.

“It is the time to do it before they go to college and are paying to study there,” Bates said.

The research challenges kids out of their comfort zone. It also teaches them how to conduct research.

“They feel prepared and confident (in college) Their time spent is not figuring out how to do research but doing the research,” Bates said.

The research projects are all different, but they have one thing in common – they all are impressive, she said.

“It is astounding to see the level of work they are doing and what they learn,” Bates added.

Soon Palmer’s teachers, friends, and her parents will see her work. Today she will give a required final presentation discussing her internship.