Remember That Undergraduate Internship?

How an unhappy internship experience helped me discover my passion for research
MARCH 2018
Biological Engineering

I did not know I was considering graduate school until the beginning of my senior year. During undergrad, I felt like a squirrel in a nut factory jumping at every opportunity that came my way. In the summer of my sophomore year, I began working for a traditional chemical engineering company called Air Products and Chemicals in Allentown, PA. The company, in short, sold various gases. This internship would change my trajectory toward graduate school. And, along the way, it has provided valuable lessons I have only begun to appreciate.

Human Resources assigned me to the Hydrogen North American Business Development group. One of my first tasks was to get familiar with the technology:  a gigantic oven that cooked methane gas until hydrogen and carbon monoxide formed and exited. Bake it until you make it. This process has not changed dramatically in decades. While several research and development groups were investigating more sustainable methods, it was far from taking over the tried-and-true oven. This stagnanation left a gaping hole in fulfilling my innate curiosities. Air Products wasn’t selling people on the quality of the hydrogen atoms – it was a function of price and delivery. Within the first few weeks, I knew excitement about working in this division was a non-starter.

But, as I began my research here, I heeded the advice of a professor who cautioned against inventing new wheels needlessly. Many scientific fields are moving at lightning speed. Take AI or genomics, for example. Reading new literature and staying up-to-date is getting more and more difficult as journals release over 4,000 articles daily in the natural sciences. It is easy to be distracted by newest, greatest technologies right around the corner.

In my research, I am motivated by the biological questions. Retooling tried-and-true methods is more than enough with sound experimental design. Using obscure machine learning methods or brand new high-throughput methods isn’t always needed. Air Products, with their decades old chemical plants, focused on what gave them results and productivity. And this straight and narrow focus on results and productivity can be valuable in fields teeming with new techniques and excitement.

Despite being in business development, most of my tasks were fairly repetitive in nature. In most projects, I analyzed data regarding the chemical plants. What was the root cause of interrupted plant production? What are the efficiencies of the heat exchangers? 95% of the time would be tracking down the data, putting all the fragmented files together, and cleaning it up. Perhaps this was the “intern” work – fair enough – but these frustrating, repetitive tasks bankrolled my growing love for Visual Basic. I gained a new appreciation for descriptively naming files and using folders.

Outlining projects, designing experiments, and running pilot experiments puts me at a point in my research best described by Harvey Dent, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.” With a wave of comma-separated value files coming my way from my current projects, I am acutely aware of preparing and organizing new data. The horrors of one Air Products’ project trying to merge several unlabeled files, all seemingly containing the same information, from varying times, slightly different classifications, and different colleagues still sits in the back of my mind. Although I am infinitely more excited about these data sets in my current research, I owe my diligence in managing it to the summer of 2015.

Unfortunately, my time at Air Products was a stressful period for those working there full time.. Thousands of employees were laid off and the new CEO intensely focused on earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) – financial jargon that he simplified to “cash flow.” As layoffs occurred, the survival of divisions and employees depended on EBITDA. This tense and often awkward environment ingrained in me a money-conscientious mindset . Our group tracked the strict financial value gained of the projects we completed for reports to upper management. Only one question mattered: how much profit did we generate for shareholders?

Experiments, it turns out, can get expensive. A few milliliters of reagents for sequencing protocols can cost a grant thousands of dollars. There are no shareholders invested in my graduate research and I am not tracking my number of SCNPs (Science, Cell, or Nature publications) – my cynical interpretation of EBITDA for academia. However, I believe my awareness for the cost of doing science will prove valuable in the long run. Regardless of your long-term ambitions in entrepreneurship, industry, or academia, begging people in fancier positions than yours for funding will be commonplace. I don’t expect to be crunching numbers of whether or not I can perform my experiments. I will leave that to my PI. But, being deliberate about what I order will hopefully save him some money and improve my abilities to plan and execute experiments.

At the end of the summer, I took the money and ran – no fault of the people I worked with. Despite being part of a rotational co-op program, I cut ties and put most of my eggs into research. My stint at Air Products, while proving unfruitful in matching my interests, turned out to be one of (what would be many) experiences that pushed me to MIT. Knowing I strongly dislike working in industrial chemicals wasn’t the only lesson I learned. More so, revisiting this internship highlighted all-around skills needed to be a successful researcher.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of graduate school at MIT thus far has been the mind-blowing diversity of the students and specifically, their stories about how they ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Think back to these sometimes forgotten or overlooked experiences and recount how they shaped your journey to attending or applying to MIT. Maybe you will find similar value in past internships, fresh perspectives on your work, and reaffirmation for your ambitions at MIT.