This summer, Christina Kim, a University of Virginia biomedical engineering student and rising fourth-year from Fairfax, is tracking infectious diseases such as flu, Zika, tuberculosis and others around the globe.
It’s the kind of experience many college students only dream about — unless they happen to be studying engineering at UVA or MIT.
Kim is one of 10 students from UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science working at a 10-week internship in Washington through the UVA/MIT Engineering Policy Internship Program.
As an intern at the crossroads of science, communications and international biomedical policy, Kim is interviewing research program managers and creating asset maps for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Summarizing research funded by the institute and charting disease-fighting infrastructure around the globe that could be mobilized to fight influenza and antimicrobial resistance, she is creating a vital bank of information.
“If there is ever an outbreak, foreign delegations can use these briefs,” Kim said. “These overviews also indicate opportunities for basic research. Finally, we are proactively gathering information to prepare the National Institutes of Health for science diplomacy. It is a privilege to work in such an exciting environment.”
Kim’s supervisor, Barbara Mulach, director of the Office of Scientific Coordination and Program Operations, Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, says they are glad to have her.
“One branch chief was so impressed with Christina’s analysis he gave her a side project,” Mulach said. “It really opened his mind as well as hers.”
Mulach said UVA/MIT policy interns quickly realize that science is only the beginning point for implementing new health programs.
“It’s not just the science; it’s what does Congress know? What does the secretary of Health and Human Services think about an issue; what does the president think? In 2018, Congress provided additional money for [the institute’s] influenza and antimicrobial resistance research. Christina is seeing all these emails, the discussion, the inquiries; and she has helped develop email responses.”
Professor of Engineering and Society Michael Gorman directs the joint UVA/MIT internship program for the University, which places 10 engineering students each summer in Washington. They work at such organizations as the American Society of Civil Engineers, the World Bank, National Institutes of Health, National Academy of Engineering, the National Science Foundation and many others.
“Interns work alongside scientists, policymakers, lobbyists, communications professionals and government administrators to experience the real world of making, implementing and reforming policies that affect our day-to-day lives and that of future generations,” Gorman said. “The program also offers UVA students an opportunity to serve their country, as there is a serious lack of understanding of science and technology in many parts of the government.”
Jim Turner, the father of a 1998 Engineering School graduate and a trustee on the UVA Engineering Foundation Board, manages the program in D.C. — or PIP, as it is often called. Turner was MIT’s Washington coordinator when UVA formally joined the program in 2001. He is well positioned to run it as the former technology staff director and chief counsel of the House of Representatives’ then Committee on Science and Technology.
The internships are highly individualized, Turner said. Care is taken to select an opportunity that closely matches the student’s interest. Prior to arriving in D.C., the interns take a course offered at UVA with Professor Andrew Reynolds in science and technology policy. In addition to their internships, they are encouraged to attend briefings on Capitol Hill, congressional testimony and think tank presentations, and to network. Turner also arranges for small-group lectures and tours for the students with nationally recognized leaders to broaden their horizons.
“When they arrive in D.C., they have no idea there are so many opportunities for engineers, especially the second-years. Some of them change tremendously,” Turner said.
Sragdhara Khakurel, a systems engineering student from Oakton, Va., is one such student whose direction shifted because of her internship at the World Bank. She arrived with a desire to help people. The World Bank provides opportunities to work on engineering solutions to issues such as clean water, health care and sustainable energy in underdeveloped countries.
It was great experience, Khakurel said, “But I’ve also had an interest in law. Our visits to Congress and especially to the Supreme Court opened my eyes to government. I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is really interesting!’ Without this internship I wouldn’t have seen what this life would be like.”
Working on policy in government requires an aptitude for analyzing issues and for understanding how decisions will shape people’s choices, livelihoods and behavior. It requires seeing society both as a whole and from multiple perspectives, a mindset that benefits from systems thinking.
UVA Engineering interns are consistently in high demand by D.C. agencies because of the education they receive.
“Our program takes students with strong critical thinking, quantitative and design skills and puts them through a spring semester course where they are introduced to policy,” Turner said. “The internship program adds practical on-the-job experience in policy and the chance to talk to governmental leaders about how their careers progressed and what was necessary for them to be successful. This happens early enough in the students’ engineering education that they can return to Charlottesville and build on their policy internship experience."
Yinhao “Tony” Ge, a rising fourth-year student majoring in chemical engineering from Shanghai, is interning at the National Academy of Engineering. Ge sees his engineering studies and passion for science policy and diplomacy as central to his aspirations to work on global issues such as poverty, sustainable cities and health care with the United Nations and other multilateral organizations.
The National Academy is renowned for producing scientifically backed and unbiased reports and analyses that are central to policy development on issues from medicine to energy to higher education. Ge is working for the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program Network on an international workshop in Hong Kong this month. It will bring together alumni of the National Academy of Engineering scholars program, academics, employers, students and non-governmental organizations to address the big engineering problems in East and Southeast Asia, such as carbon sequestration and securing cyberspace.
“I want to be involved in positions and organizations where I can use science diplomacy to make a global difference” Ge said. “My engineering background and interest in international affairs offer me that chance. And UVA, with its liberal arts culture and proximity to D.C., attracts the brightest minds and influencers. Our mentors, Prof. Gorman, Prof. Turner and Prof. Reynolds have been tremendously helpful.”
Other interns, such as Ahmed Osman, a civil engineering and rising fourth-year student from Salisbury, Md., are engaged in projects that reform and rebuild the environment around us. Osman is interning at the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“I’m interested in incorporating sustainability into our everyday lives,” Osman said. “Whether that involves influencing policies on sustainability, creating urban spaces that enhance the natural environment, or providing the services people need — all in an effort to improve the quality of life for people everywhere.”
His supervisor, Michael Sanio, sustainability director for the society, said Osman is contributing to efforts to introduce sustainability into how civil engineers are educated and credentialed. He is even working with the society’s governance structure to change the code of ethics from “shall strive to incorporate sustainability into projects” to “shall incorporate sustainability.” This may seem like a semantic change, but as Osman is discovering, moving an entire organization is a complex process requiring courage, tact and insight. It requires leaders.
Erwin Gianchandani, National Science Foundation deputy assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering and a 2004 UVA policy intern, is such a leader. Gianchandani was earning his bachelor’s in computer science with a minor in biomedical engineering when he did his internship. The experience ultimately inspired him to pursue graduate school and earn his master’s and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.
“The internship opened my eyes to how research administration within the government is done, notably, how you can help shape investments in a given field,” Gianchandani said. “This program brings your focus up several levels.”
When he reflects on his own career, it’s the Policy Internship Program that made all the difference for him.
“This is the program that set me on my career course. Fourteen years later, I can still say that. If you look at the students who are coming out of this program, time and again they become researchers and scholars in their own right — they are individuals who are willing to travel the world to solve our grand challenges. My friends in the program have worked on all kinds of issues such as prosperity, security, health and well-being.”
Indeed, as PIP approaches its 20th anniversary, its reputation and capacity for developing leaders remains impressive. Thanks are due in large measure to alumni, who are now in positions to mentor and support the next generation.
Alumni R. Dudley and Barbara White (Aerospace ’81) have been longtime supporters.
“It’s great to see the interns at the receptions, watch the older ones mentor the younger ones, and hear, yes, that intern experience did influence your path and that you are doing great things,” White said. “And now you’re passing it along. Our hopes are being fulfilled. We’re thrilled [UVA Engineering Dean Craig Benson] is supportive of the program.”