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NREL: Not Just a Summer Lab Internship


As a child growing up in Massachusetts, Gabriel Prepetit went to football stadiums to watch the games and excitement unfold, but those massive structures around him ultimately made the lasting impression.

He saw early on how people and buildings coexist—the size and function of different structures, the way crowds move and utilize the spaces.

“I was always fascinated by large-scale buildings and their design and construction,” Prepetit said. “They’re such large and vast structures with so many parts that all have to work together.”

The question he always faced during his ongoing education was: “What next?” With forays into architecture and engineering, Prepetit struggled to find the right path for himself. A chance piece of advice from a teacher led him to apply to the Graduate Education Minority (GEM) Fellowship Program. It became the spark he needed.

Prepetit was accepted into the program, and it opened entirely new doors of opportunity. GEM fellows are provided practical engineering summer work experiences through an employer sponsor—in Prepetit’s case, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Fellows also earn an academic year of covered tuition, fees, and a stipend to use at any participating university providing acceptance.

After spending the summer as an NREL intern, Prepetit said he looks back on the experience as life-changing. Each step of the GEM fellowship led to new opportunities.

A few years ago, his vision of the future was something else entirely.

“I was planning on working in construction back at home. Graduate school was always something I was interested in doing, but in terms of funding, it really wasn’t in the cards,” Prepetit said. “I didn’t know the GEM Fellowship Program even existed. I didn’t even know that was a thing. I applied but didn’t think it would go anywhere. I was kind of doubting myself.”

He may not have earned top grades as a civil engineering undergraduate student at Syracuse University, but Prepetit was always motivated. Fortunately, he said, the GEM program looks at more than just grades.

“I was very involved on campus at Syracuse. I had an internship every summer. They look at what you did on top of that—if you are active in your school,” Prepetit said. “It ended up working out better than I could have ever imagined. It was an amazing opportunity. I was able to finish school and have this great internship. It’s been an amazing experience. I am so grateful.”

Prepetit spent the past summer at NREL conducting research on heat pumps in the residential buildings group. He said many homes in the Southwest employ heat pumps to help control the temperature in their homes electrically, rather than using natural gas or oil. The issue is trying to get the technology up to speed in colder climates where heat pumps do not operate as efficiently.

The entire area of study was new for him, he said, but proved a consequential learning curve. By trusting in himself and taking new chances, his life goals expanded into a career passion: developing sustainable housing, optimizing homes in disadvantaged communities, and fighting climate change.

“That’s something I definitely wasn’t thinking of—how everything really does need to go green for the world to sustain itself, and all the work being done,” Prepetit said. “We’re getting to a time where it obviously needs to happen. Put that hand in hand with creating low-income housing, and it’s like two birds with one stone, two positives in one, you know what I mean?”

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