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Washington work opens interns’ eyes

interns in front of U.S. Supreme Court in D.C.
Photo by Dan Grogan
Natalie Giannelli, Erica Kohn, Brian Fox, Sarah Fischer, Korina Kalopsidiotou, Joseph Gay, Edward Hallen, Ryan Ewalt, Ryan Murphy in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

By Charlotte Crystal

Mathematical equations are part of the routine for engineering students. But last summer, nine U.Va. engineering students who served public policy internships on and around Capitol Hill learned about a new variable.

Politics.

“Such an internship program is common for political science majors, but unusual for engineering students,” said Dean Richard Miksad, who came up with the idea three years ago. “Our kids learn how to work within the political realities of the system.”

While the engineering students — and one student from Arts & Sciences — did their share of answering telephones, overall they were given a striking amount of responsibility, said Kay Neeley, faculty coordinator for the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Washington Internship Program.

“Our interns got meaty assignments because of their technical background,” said Neeley, associate professor with the Division of Technology, Culture and Communication. “They did real jobs. One student prepared a report on anti-landmine technology that recommended which avenues of research the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should pursue.”

This past summer, U.Va. engineering students filled internships in three congressional offices and helped at the House Science Committee’s subcommittee for space and aeronautics, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and various other offices.

“Prior to this program, I had always viewed myself as an engineer with a separate interest in government,” said Ed Hallen, a systems engineering major who worked for the Information Technology Industry Council. “After the program, I view the two disciplines as incredibly interrelated. I hope to use my technological experience to shape the public policy of the future.”

Neeley was pleased with the mix of placements. “At the end of the day, the kids had an opportunity to exchange views, compare notes and engage in lively, intellectual community.”

And the students saw that their expertise and work ethics were valued, said Michael Gorman, program director and chair of the TCC division. Because of their technical and research skills, U.Va.’s engineering students quickly moved into positions of prominence in their offices, he said.

Miksad launched the program with the help of James Turner, the Democratic counsel for the House Science Committee and a member of the dean’s advisory committee since 1996. Miksad realized there was a need for the internship program during his annual trips to Washington to visit legislators with deans from Virginia’s other engineering schools. He found it frustrating to talk to staff aides who were well-trained in political science but didn’t understand the technological issues the deans wanted to discuss.

“Our goal with this internship program is to raise the level of technological literacy in the national science policy-making process,” Miksad said.

Turner organized the U.Va. internship program along the lines of a similar program he established for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about five years ago.

The U.Va. and M.I.T. students shared living quarters and together attended talks and special events arranged for the program. Speakers ranged from NASA astronaut Susan Kilrain to William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering.

Believing in the value of the program, the Virginia Engineering Foundation and the dean’s office this year committed $70,000 in funding needed to pay for the students’ living expenses plus a small stipend, and programming and administration costs.

Students signed up for an elective class beginning late last spring. Along with the work involved in the eight-week internship, students also kept a journal, wrote two papers and gave an oral presentation related to their policy work in the early fall.
The program organizers believe the internships will have a lasting effect on the students’ lives. For some, it reshaped their views of their studies.

“After reading numerous reports at the National Academy of Sciences, I realized how many interesting, computer-associated fields there are,” said Korina Kalopsidiotou, a computer science major who worked with the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering’s Executive Office of the Division of Engineering and Physical Sciences. “As a computer science major, I became interested in expanding my options through a minor in biology, which would let me enter the emerging field of bioinformatics.”

Ryan Murphy, who worked in the science division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said his eyes were opened to new career possibilities.

“As a systems engineering major, I thought I might work for the government as a consultant or through private sector contracts, but never imagined the possibility of working directly for the government,” Murphy said. “I am now more confident about finding a job after graduating.”

For most of the students, in different ways, the summer internships in Washington were life-changing experiences.

“My summer internship was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” said Kalopsidiotou. “My work and the program activities allowed me to see a completely different side of science and technology.”


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