Robeson Community College

Robeson CC student to intern at Manhattan Project site

RCC student Whitney Pittman to work with nuclear waste in Washington State

Photo of  Robeson CC student Whitney Pittman and Biology instructor Courtney Kilgore

Robeson CC student Whitney Pittman (l) and Biology instructor Courtney Kilgore (r)

Mention the Manhattan Project today and many will probably think you are talking about a high-rise development built by a billionaire mogul in New York City. But the “other” Manhattan Project is a part of American history that didn’t happen in New York — it was the code name for the development of the first nuclear weapons during WWII, two of which are credited with bringing the war in the Pacific theater to an end.

What does that have to do with Robeson Community College? Well, nuclear endeavors create waste and the vast majority of the waste created by the Manhattan Project now resides at the Hanford site in Washington State.

Robeson Community College student Whitney Pittman recently learned that she has been awarded a paid internship through the 2016 Department of Energy Mentorship for Environmental Scholars Internship Program to work at the Hanford site this summer.

For two months, Whitney will spend time there helping researchers work on ways to keep the nuclear waste safely contained for the thousands of years it will need to decay to the point that it is deemed safe for humans.

While this is an interesting story, Whitney’s personal story is no less so. When Pittman, who was born in Bladen County, started school, her teachers thought she was a special-needs student. Mom didn’t agree and decided to home school Whitney beginning in the third grade. It turned out that her vision was the problem and Whitney, at that young age, did not tell teachers that she couldn’t see the board. When she finished her schooling at home, Whitney earned her GED at Bladen Community College. She planned to go to college but got sick and her vision got worse until she lost her sight completely. Doctors diagnosed her with “Psuedotumor cerebri,” also known as intracranial hypertension. For three months, pressure in her brain affected Whitney’s optic nerve.

“I realized that we take a lot for granted,” Whitney said. “For example, during the blindness I once turned on a light switch out of habit and realized that the light had come on but that I still couldn’t see. I had a breakdown at that point.”

Doctors originally told her she wouldn’t see again, but with a spinal tap and medication, the pressure was relieved enough for vision to return. With corrective lenses, Whitney’s vision is now 20/15.

Whitney came to Robeson Community College and took a placement test in the fall of 2013.

“I scored really low on the writing, but I tested out of math,” she said. “I wanted to be a botanist.” English instructor Wendy Fields helped her with writing and Whitney eventually won a writing contest at the college. Then Fields introduced her to Biology instructor Courtney Kilgore.

“I took Zoology and Botany with Ms. Kilgore, and I also got a work study position in the science department.”

Prior to leaving for Washington state, Pittman has a few loose ends to tie up. She will graduate from Robeson Community College with an associate degree in Science in a few days, after which she and Kilgore will travel to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, where Whitney will be able to network with researchers. Whitney will help set up several exhibits that will be open to the public at BRIT.

This fall, Whitney will attend UNCP to work towards her bachelor’s degree in Biology with a track in Botany.

“Whitney is my hero,” Kilgore said. “She has such a wonderful story to tell and it is rare that a student comes around that is so passionate and willing to take all the steps necessary to live their dream. It is our commitment at Robeson Community College to help her every step of the way.”

Dennis Watts is the public information officer for Robeson Community College.