Former WISE Interns Reflect on Program Years Later

Former WISE Interns Reflect on Program Years Later

Since 1980, the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE) program has been a groundbreaking opportunity for engineering students.  Selected by the WISE societies, interns have the unique opportunity to spend a summer working in Washington, D.C., on public policy issues related to their field of study.

I reached out to some former WISE interns to see where life has taken them and how WISE impacted their lives.  Hopefully this will encourage some of you reading this to apply for next summer!

 SYDNEY HAMILTON (2017)

What led you to apply to the WISE program?

I applied after learning about the program from a professor at my undergrad school (University of Pittsburgh). I was interested in science and engineering because of an interest in nuclear energy. As I went through high school and the start of undergrad, I realized that there was a real resistance to nuclear, not necessarily because of the science, but because people (both the public and elected officials) didn’t understand nuclear science. This made me understand the importance of people with technical backgrounds putting themselves in the position to influence policy that affects science. So I applied to be an ANS WISE intern to research radioactive waste management governance — a perfect case study, in my opinion, on the importance of technical knowledge in forming policy.

What is your favorite memory from your time as an intern?

I’m not sure I have a specific favorite memory of WISE, I found every aspect of the experience to be rewarding in different ways. I very much enjoyed getting to know my cohort (slowly memorizing each other’s “elevator pitches” we gave at each site visit), most of whom I am still friends with today. It was refreshing to spend nine weeks with a group of people who had the same interests in and passions for using our technical backgrounds to influence policy. I also enjoyed having the chance to live in D.C. for a summer with a (mostly) flexible work schedule, allowing me to enjoy the city in a way that I can’t now with my nine to five job.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned while in the WISE program?

The value of putting yourself out there! When you’re early career (but really at any point), I found that most people in the D.C. area love to take the time to do an informational interview to talk about their work to help you research a subject or to try to figure out if a particular field or job is right for you. Collecting business cards at happy hours and cold emailing or LinkedIn messaging people led to some of my most interesting conversations about my research and really shaped my paper. Those interactions lead to other interactions as those people connect you with others, expanding your network even farther. It has also inspired me to pay it forward; I give talks at my undergrad university about science policy, and I often do informational interviews with students who wish to pursue a path similar to mine, or are interested in the same issue areas I am.

How did WISE help set you up for success in your career?  What are you doing now?

WISE set me up for success by teaching me good research skills, and by helping me build my policy chops. But mostly, WISE was beneficial because it allowed me to build my professional network with a wide range of interesting people doing remarkable things. I found my current job because of a connection I made in D.C. during my WISE summer, so WISE effectively kick-started my career. I work as a Systems Engineer for Systems Planning & Analysis, Inc., doing policy and compliance work for the U.S. Navy. I have been working here for three years. I am also in grad school at the George Washington University pursuing a Master’s of Public Administration.


JON HOREK (2000)

What led you to apply to the WISE program?

I applied to the Summer 2000 WISE program because I was an engineering student who grew up interested in politics and policy. I wanted to experience D.C. I wanted to understand the ways that engineers could impact government, and government policy could influence engineering.

What is your favorite memory from your time as an intern?

Another intern and I took the D.C. Metro to a cocktail party at NIH headquarters so we could gain some original insights for our papers. We introduced ourselves and had some great conversations about our topics. I also remember that everybody we met thought that WISE sounded like an amazing program.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned while in the WISE program?

I learned that the most interesting piece of information is the one you can’t find in a Google search. To be at the forefront of anything, it is necessary to meet new people, maintain strong relationships, and learn what others are thinking about today. This is the best way to connect the dots in new ways.

How did WISE help set you up for success in your career?  What are you doing now?

WISE helped me realize that some engineers have always kept a foot in both the private sector and public service. I also chose to follow these parallel paths. I have 20+ years of engineering experience in various forms — R&D and manufacturing early on, and now nearly 15 years of engineering consulting and project management. Since WISE, I have also stayed engaged in a variety of policy, most recently being named to Chicago Mayor Lightfoot’s building decarbonization policy working group.


KATHLEEN LENTIJO (2003)

What led you to apply to the WISE program?

My grandfather was an engineer and also on the town council, so at family dinners I remember him talking about voting on a new stoplight or roundabout for the town and then seeing it implemented a few months later.  While the politics of the state capitol or Washington, D.C., seemed far away, as a kid seeing someone I knew in politics directly influencing our town made an impression.  Also, I applied to the WISE program while I was studying abroad in Japan in the Fall of 2002, and my class had just gone on a field trip to Hiroshima. Seeing what happened in Hiroshima, and then learning more about the scientists involved in the Manhattan project, made me realize that the scientist’s voice in technology-related policy can have real impacts on the world. I saw WISE as an opportunity to understand that process better.

What is your favorite memory from your time as an intern?

I have so many awesome memories from that summer!  Discovering D.C. and all the cool summer concerts and other free things to do around the city with my fellow interns ranks high. I remember we brought our blankets and a picnic to the mall and watched Dolly Parton perform live for the 4th of July in front of the Capitol. Another favorite memory was Chris Brantley taking time on the weekend to drive the IEEE interns to Monticello for a day.  IEEE-USA could not ask for a better managing director!

What was the most valuable lesson you learned while in the WISE program?

Diving deep into radio spectrum policy reform as part of my policy paper helped me understand how many facets there are to any policy issue.  I think the most valuable lesson was that it is critically important that engineers and scientists have a voice to help inform those policies and provide decision makers with solid technical data and sound, science-based advice. I also learned that our government is set up to have many such engineering experts available, and hearing from those engineers and learning about their jobs at the NAE, NIST, OSTP, FAA, FCC, the State Department, and others as part of the internship was incredibly impactful for me.

How did WISE help set you up for success in your career?  What are you doing now?

When I applied to the WISE program I was considering law or business school after my undergraduate degree; however, after seeing how versatile engineers with a Ph.D. could be, and how they could even help shape policy decisions, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. instead.  I worked in industry at GE and Mitsubishi in the fields of power electronics and power systems for around 10 years. Now, I am back working in D.C. as a contractor at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), where I serve as a science and engineering technical advisor providing technical support to program directors. I am finding now, more than ever, that my WISE internship experience helps me have a broader understanding of how my work as a contractor at ARPA-E fits into the broader context of technology policy. I think the internship also taught me how policy can powerfully drive the direction of engineering innovation, which is something I witness almost every day in my current role.


MARY SHELMAN (1981)

What led you to apply to the WISE program?

I saw a flyer on the bulletin board in Anderson Hall (the engineering building at the University of Kentucky at that time) in the spring of my junior year. I was an unusual engineering student, having done my freshman and sophomore classes at a community college in my small hometown. The community college was part of the UK system at the time, so my transcript reads UK for all four years. But the engineering offerings were limited, and I arrived at main campus in Lexington without a couple of prerequisite classes, which I was allowed to take concurrently with the 3rd-year curriculum for chemical engineering. Needless to say, classes, labs and studying were the only things I had time for. However, the WISE flyer on the bulletin board caught my eye, and I went straight to my adviser to ask him to support me. At that time, I had limited experience with travel, had never been to D.C., knew nothing about government and policy, etc. I was interested in learning new things, and the program exceeded my expectations!

What is your favorite memory from your time as an intern?

So many! Although it was 31 years ago, it seems like yesterday that we were there. Lots of first time experiences for me — July 4th on the Mall, Wolf Trap, meetings with members of Congress and staffers, visit to the Library of Congress, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, doing our final presentations.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned while in the WISE program?

The importance of being informed and getting involved. And also the important role policy plays in our economy and society.

How did WISE help set you up for success in your career?  What are you doing now?

I haven’t followed a typical engineering career. My first job was in tech service, followed by industrial sales. Then an MBA from Harvard in order to redirect, which led me to my career in food and Agribusiness. I’ve spent time in both industry and academia. Currently have a ‘portfolio career,’ where I am involved in several activities, including selective consulting work for businesses and governments, ongoing research and teaching, public speaking on trends in global Agribusiness and food, advising startups and investors in AgTech and FoodTech and judging AgTech competitions, etc. During the year before the pandemic (2019), I was in East Africa twice to deliver training sessions for the FAO; in Ireland three times; in Singapore, Mexico twice, etc. The WISE program gave me tools, inspiration and ambition that formed the foundation for an unexpected and amazing career.

I would like to thank these former WISE interns for taking the time to share their experience.  For more information about our WISE internship program, please visit https://wise-intern.org/.  Applications to become a 2022 IEEE-USA WISE Intern are due in early 2022.


Kayla Henneberry is policy associate for IEEE-USA government relations.


Leave a Reply