Memory, it has been said, is the diary that each of us carries with us. But in the case of the three U.S. IEEE student members who participated in the 2015 Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE) program, standard diaries could hardly contain all their memories of being in the nation’s capital–during what was arguably one of the most significant summers in recent history.
“Members of our intern group were outside the U.S. Supreme Court when gay marriage was legalized across the country, and when the Affordable Care Act was upheld,” says Nikhil Garg, an entering Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at Stanford University. “We also heard speeches on the House floor before the voting on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, attended bill markups, saw presidential candidates and watched President Obama lobbying Members of Congress at the congressional baseball game.”
This year, IEEE-USA–with support from IEEE Technical Activities and the IEEE Life Members Committee–sponsored three WISE interns. Garg received his B.S. in electrical and computer engineering and B.A. Plan II honors from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2015, and he is interested in wireless policy and Internet economics. The two other interns are Cara DeCoste, who is studying electrical engineering with a concentration in power and energy systems, at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and Devin Cornell, an electrical engineering major at Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla who expects to pursue a Ph.D. in computational sociology.
Since WISE began more than 30 years ago, the program has shown hundreds of the brightest engineering students from throughout the United States how engineers can contribute to vital issues involving science, technology and public policy. The students spend nine weeks in the summer in Washington, D.C., where the seven sponsoring societies (IEEE among them) ensure they get a first-hand view of the junction between engineering and public policy.
During interactions with leaders in the U.S. Congress, the administration, federal agencies, industry and non-governmental organizations, the interns learn how government officials make decisions on complex technological issues. To provide the students with further insights on how engineers can contribute to legislative and regulatory public policy decisions, each also researches, writes and presents a paper on a public policy issue that concerns the sponsoring society.
The three students recently shared their thoughts about their WISE internships, their aspirations and themselves:
Q: Where are you from? And what do you like best about your hometown?
Cornell: I’m from Leon, Iowa, a small town in the south-central part of the state. I like the relaxed atmosphere, all the outdoor activities, and how nice it is to be in a town of 2,000 people–where I know so many of them, and have access to many resources.
DeCoste: My hometown is Charlotte, North Carolina; and besides the climate, I enjoy the convenience to both the beach and the mountains. I also like it because my friends, church and family are there.
Garg: I’m from Houston; and I like the huge diversity of the people who live there, as well as all there is to see and do. I must have gone to the NASA Space Center hundreds of times while I was growing up. Also, Houston isn’t as crowded as some of the other bigger cities.
Q: Prior to your WISE internship, had you visited Washington, D.C. before?
Cornell: I think I was 12 when I visited Washington with my family. But this time, I’m next door to where so many exciting things are happening. Also, there are many different cultures and lots going on–including related to my WISE research topic.
DeCoste: I was in Washington a few years ago with my family, and we saw a lot–but obviously not as much as I’ve been able to get to this summer. I’ve visited most of the Smithsonian, but still haven’t gotten to the Museum of the American Indian.
Garg: Eight years ago, I was in Washington for a computer science competition. This time, of course, is very different; and I think I’ve been to all the museums.
Q: Why did you apply for a WISE internship and how do you expect to benefit from it?
Cornell: I applied because after two interesting summer internships with Sandia National Laboratories in electrical engineering R&D, I was ready to combine my previous experience with new topics I wanted to explore. On the one hand, we receive information from many different speakers; but what we want to write about–as well as the process–is left up to us. I wanted to apply my interest in complexity science to my presentation topic.
DeCoste: For me, I saw a WISE internship as a way to combine my interest in writing with my engineering skills. During past summers, I had standard engineering internships and a research assistantship. So far, I’ve benefitted from making new friends and learning more about how the federal government works. Talking with people who are actually doing things has made me more interested in what’s happening in Congress, and what my state’s representatives are doing.
Garg: I applied for a WISE internship because I believed it would give me an open-ended experience to learn about public policy and learn how to make a difference. In college, we learn how to frame a project, decide on the parameters, determine the necessary research, and then actually write the paper; but this internship is much broader, especially because of the people you meet. This experience will help me in graduate school, along with some of the connections I’ve made, including with other interns.
Q: What is the topic of your paper and presentation?
Cornell: My research combines my interest in complexity science with how it can be applied to make critical process improvements for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Of course we want to help people, but it needs to be done in the right way. So, how do we create processes that support changing
needs–and also understand the environment where aid is being provided? I believe that we can improve the process by incentivizing USAID people and the organizations delivering the aid. It’s a matter of creating a culture that encourages both high risks and high rewards–an environment where aid moves at a faster, more efficient pace than Congress.
DeCoste: I am researching the effect of extreme space weather events–in particular, solar flares–on the electric power grid, as well as what the public policy effort should be. I chose the topic after attending a meeting of the North Carolina Energy Council; there’s a lot of attention on this issue, but there’s also controversy about what could actually happen–from a catastrophe to a two or three-hour blackout. Because of all the controversy, it’s been difficult to arrive at a good policy framework.
Garg: I’m looking at Federal Communications Commission regulations on unlicensed bands. In 2013, Qualcomm and Ericsson announced a way to send cellular data on unlicensed bands currently used by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, for example, and supported by licensed bands. Cellular companies want to take advantage of the technology to augment their capacity in congested areas, but Wi-Fi proponents worry this strategy will cause Wi-Fi performance degradation. It’s a very politically charged issue, so I’m researching frameworks that could resolve such debates.
Q: What do you hope to learn from your WISE internship experience?
Cornell: I have two hopes: the first is to understand more about the public policy process and how it works. The second is to be able to focus on one non-engineering topic, and dig deeply into it by taking advantage of the many resources in Washington, D.C. I didn’t have that flexibility, even when I worked two summers at a national laboratory.
DeCoste: I hope to learn whether a career in public policy will be a good fit for me, starting, perhaps, as an energy public policy researcher.
Garg: I expect to learn how to identify a field, and then pinpoint where I can make a difference in the policy sphere. I’m accustomed to writing college papers, but it’s a different beast when you have the opportunity to meet with people and hear what arguments policymakers find most convincing. I hope to use this experience to conduct more effective research as a graduate student.
Q: How do you see your career unfolding after you’ve completed your studies?
Cornell: I’ll be graduating from Missouri S&T in December, and I’m deciding on the next step–although I do want to study for a Ph.D. in computational sociology. I’m also interested in cognitive neuroscience, group decision theory, computational intelligence, agent-based modeling and ethnography.
DeCoste: I’m still deciding, although public policy is one avenue for me. I’m also interested in international development, since power and energy in developing nations is so important to them.
Garg: I hope to be a professor, because I enjoy teaching and the open-ended aspects of research. Over the next decade, communications issues will be at the forefront of technology policy and I hope some of my research can have an impact.
Q: How are you spending your free time in Washington this summer?
Cornell: I’ve been taking an online course in organizational analysis and learning more about complexity science, plus doing some programming. I’ve also been visiting museums and bike riding with other interns, and I discovered Ethiopian food.
DeCoste: One of my favorite things to do is walk around the monuments and memorials at night. The Library of Congress is my favorite place in Washington; I love books and being surrounded by so many in this beautiful building.
Garg: I visited all the Smithsonian Museums, but this is an incredible summer to be in Washington, and see history happening. The experience is something you can’t get anywhere but here!
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991-2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.