Each year, IEEE-USA sponsors three or four government fellowships for qualified U.S. IEEE members. The Fellows — chosen by the IEEE-USA Government Fellows Committee and confirmed by the IEEE-USA Board of Directors — spend a year living and working in Washington as advisers to the U.S. Congress and to the U.S. Department of State or U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Three of IEEE-USA’s 2017-2018 Government Fellows shared their experiences with IEEE-USA InSight for this article.
“It’s a once in a lifetime experience. It was the most formative experience of my life,” said Marc Canellas of his time as a 2018 IEEE-USA Government Fellow. The first alumnus of the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE) program to become an IEEE-USA Government Fellow, Canellas has a unique perspective on these offerings: “We need more engineers and IEEE members to know this is a thing, and a very valuable experience. This is useful to you whoever you are and whatever your plans are.”
Having just earned his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech in 2017, Canellas went to work in Representative Derek Kilmer’s, D-Wash., office, and said the congressman was “amazing to work for,” giving him and the other staff a lot of autonomy and trust. He felt valued and respected, even as a young staffer. Canellas continued: “I feel humbler and more confident for having been in that office.”
As an engineer, Canellas had never had to rely as much on his interpersonal skills as he did on Capitol Hill. “You have to build coalitions and trust. That’s the key,” Canellas said. “Technical experience is super useful, but personal skills are more important.”
So while he did offer advice on his areas of expertise, such as aerospace, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, Canellas found he spent more time expanding his experience and becoming a more rounded professional, especially working in a House office where staffs are smaller. “It’s sort of like a small business or a startup. Everybody’s scrambling, but you’re all friends,” he said. “Senators for large states have huge staffs, 60-70 people. With small teams you get to see a lot more.”
During his fellowship, Canellas learned to embrace the unexpected. “Everything won’t go as you planned, but that’s the mark of a good experience,” he said. “If everything goes just as you thought it would, then why even go? It’s too predictable.” He found this diversity to be an enormous benefit: “Even if you think you know where you want your career to go, your experience on the Hill may change that. You may even find a direction that you didn’t know existed.”
So would Canellas recommend the IEEE-USA Government Fellowship program to others? “Yes! Do it. I don’t care what your interests are. If you have a chance to serve in Congress and see what it’s like, just do it. No matter what you want to do, understanding about policy that affects your industry matters.”
Long Lam worked on the Senate side, in the office of Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. A polyglot (he speaks fluent English, Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese and German), Lam’s background is in clean energy, including time spent working on lithium-ion battery optimization at BMW in Germany and a summer in China researching new solar photovoltaic technologies.
Lam said he wanted to combine his technical skills and policy interests, and Senator Merkley’s office was a perfect fit. Lam described that “Senator Merkley is a champion for renewable energy and addressing climate change.” Working on the senator’s staff, he helped with policy for electric vehicles, electricity transmission infrastructure, energy resilience and funding for new energy breakthroughs.
He also got to do some things he didn’t expect, including work with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In addition to helping organize committee hearings and advising on relevant policy, he also performed a lot of outreach with embassies in Washington. “It’s important to learn about what other countries are doing to address climate change, to better inform our own decisions,” Lam said.
Like Canellas, Lam stressed the importance of building coalitions and said he learned a lot. “I saw that stories with real people are powerful, and paint a better picture than data alone,” he said. “I learned how vital it is to listen to all stakeholders, and not to forget that politicians are people too.”
When asked if he would do the IEEE-USA Government Fellowship again, Lam answered “Yes! I gained a lot of perspective. This is a unique opportunity and I would definitely recommend it.”
Ron Hira worked with the minority party staff in the House Education and Workforce Committee. He brought extensive experience to the table: Hira is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Howard University, and research associate with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Before joining Howard, he was an associate professor and acting chair of the Department of Public Policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He specializes in policy issues on technological innovation, offshoring, high-skill immigration and the American engineering workforce, having written extensively about these topics.
He had even testified before Congress numerous times before, as a subject expert on high-skill immigration and outsourcing. Yet even with so much experience, Hira said he learned a lot during his fellowship, saying “I even learned things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.”
While on the Hill, Hira reviewed legislation on automation, AI and robotics, among other topics. He would take the best of the best and write memos on his findings to try to make better bills.
Hira also helped with roundtables for members of Congress to have informed discussions. He was surprised by the extent of the partisanship and rhetoric he saw. In his experience, there wasn’t enough communication across the aisle. “There was no neutral, data-driven analysis,” Hira said. “People in Congress want to make good policy, but aren’t getting the objective information they need.”
Reflecting on his fellowship, Hira said he’s very grateful and was humbled by the opportunity. “It was terrific,” he said. “Definitely a formative experience for me. Opportunities like this – funding with no strings – is rare. I would recommend it to anyone.”
Corey Ruth is IEEE-USA’s media relations associate.