Coming Back to Make a Difference, Find a Passion, and Change the World
Author: Omkar Ratnaparkhi
This story is the last in a series about how MITRE tackles complex problems, such as setting up student programs to develop researchers able to work in the public interest, enhancing long-term veteran wellness, and using AI/ML to combat COVID-19.
The History of the Emerging Technologies Student Program
In a mid-summer virtual lunch with student interns, MITRE President and CEO Dr. Jason Providakes said, “We’ve had all this bad news [this summer], but the fact that MITRE can continue an internship program is a testament to our commitment of building the future workforce and serving the public interest.” A key part of MITRE’s overall student program this past summer, which involved nearly 500 student staff members, was the Emerging Technologies Summer Student Research Program, which began in 1989, and despite the pandemic, successfully completed its 32nd summer in 2020, under the leadership of Dr. James Ellenbogen.
In 2017, at direction of Dr. Providakes, the Emerging Technologies Student Program expanded to include a greater number and diversity of interns and mentors. Indeed, summer 2020 saw 65 MITRE adult staff mentoring 44 students—22 young women and 22 young men—all working remotely within the Emerging Tech Program. Together, this team enabled the program to continue its mission of developing scientists, engineers, and technologists ready to solve problems for the good of the country.
Out of the 44 students in the program, 20 students—including myself—were completely new to MITRE and, because of current restrictions on in-person contacts, never worked inside a MITRE building. Twenty-four student staff, though, were returning for a second, third, or even fifth summer. To gain a better perspective on what has made students come back each year, I interviewed three remote colleagues who have returned for the past 3 to 5 years to deepen their learning and commitment.
Returning to Make a Difference: Taylor Daniels
I spoke with Taylor Daniels, a rising sophomore at Georgia Tech majoring in computer science and asked her: “What was it about MITRE’s workplace environment and culture that led you to spend three summers as a student investigator?” For Taylor, it has been the combination of a welcoming environment and seeing that she and her work were really valued. She elaborated, “To high school students, who make up the vast majority of the program, it can be intimidating entering a professional setting filled with such accomplished people. I remember how nervous I was as a rising senior the summer of 2018. However, everyone here is so willing to share their expertise and, when doing so, speak to students as equals.”
Taylor went on to tell me that in each summer she has worked on a different aspect of the problem of protecting U.S. warfighters from blast injuries, but that one thing has remained the same: “Students at MITRE can take pride in the fact that their work is really making a difference. I’ve had the privilege of knowing that servicemembers will be better protected because of the projects to which I have made small contributions.”
The experience has made a difference for her, too. She told me that, in addition to her technical skills, adaptability and confidence are two attributes that have been enhanced greatly in her 3 summers working at MITRE. Aware that computer science is full of overachievers, Taylor said that as a result of her experience at MITRE, she believes she’ll be able to handle whatever the STEM industry throws at her.
Changing the World: Sanjana Meduri
Everyone has a picture of how they wish the world worked, but, at MITRE, people can actually move our world closer to how they imagine it should be. For example, as head of the Emerging Technologies Student Program, Dr. Ellenbogen refers to students as student investigators instead of interns. This wording is meaningful because student investigators help solve real-world problems.
Sanjana Meduri was a high school sophomore in 2018 when she applied and was selected from among hundreds of other applicants to work in the Emerging Technologies Summer Program. This past summer, Sanjana enjoyed her third summer as a student investigator, and I was interested to hear her reasons for coming back to MITRE each year. Sanjana’s told me that her projects have varied in terms of the technical tasking. However, she explained the one commonality: “Every project that I have worked on can solve a real-world problem. Every project can make a significant difference in the world. Every project at MITRE is one that can change somebody’s life. This feeling of working in a field that I am passionate about, learning an extraordinary amount just by applying past knowledge, all while knowing that I can leave a mark on the world, is something that I will chase for the rest of my career.”
When Sanjana first came to MITRE in 2018, she worked on translating brainwaves into readable text, a service that she hopes one day will enable disabled people to speak and communicate. This summer, she has been working on remote health sensing to measure the vital signs of people through cameras. Her work is to become part of a system that is undergoing testing in the lobby of a MITRE building and at airports to help with screening for those who might have infectious diseases. Such remote health sensing could be especially crucial as businesses and schools begin in-person activities in the midst of the current health crisis.
Also, as it benefits the country, the MITRE system, including Sanjana’s contribution, is a first step toward her goal to help change the world.
Developing and Exploring a New Passion: Michele Horner
Michele Horner was a high school sophomore when she was strongly recommended by her teachers and was hired into the Emerging Tech Program in the summer of 2015. Since then, she has worked at MITRE every summer, except 2017, when she was traveling with her family. In her remarks to me, she emphasized her evolution over her five summers at MITRE.
During her first two summers, in 2015 and 2016, Michele believed that biology and medicine were her passion. To that end, she worked as a student investigator in a diabetes-related project and then in an epilepsy-related project.
But her passion had changed by her third summer. Because MITRE supports an environment in which staff across programs can speak freely and openly about the non-sensitive details of their projects, she was able to learn more about what was going on in other disciplines. After interacting with other students and MITRE staff, she realized that her true interests in science and technology lay in exploring the intricacies of the world through physics.
Consequently, as a rising senior at the University of Virginia, Michele is now majoring in Physics and Astronomy. Plus, her work at MITRE over the past three summers, on tracking objects in space, has been closely aligned with her college major.
In addition to finding a new passion, at MITRE Michele has developed many life skills. People in all walks of life struggle with public speaking, Michele told me, but not her: “From a total of eight beginning-of-summer kickoff and end-of-summer final review briefings, my public presentation skills and confidence speaking on scientific subjects have developed dramatically. Now, I find myself grateful for the opportunity to use my previous experiences and the knowledge I have gained to reach out to younger students, and to do my best to mentor them in the way that my co-workers did for me summers ago.”
Also, she has continued to learn from other students. She says, “I am continually surprised by what I can learn from the many younger students at MITRE. I have found that regardless of age, every student within the summer program possesses great intelligence and has a unique set of skills to offer, which every one of their fellow co-workers, including me, can learn from.”
The Purpose Driving MITRE’s Student Programs
As a company dedicated to the public interest, MITRE’s official mission statement for its student programs is “To develop students to meet MITRE’s and the nation’s future workforce needs.” Our student investigators do just that. Students like the three profiled above reported working on projects that benefit the country, while also developing career-relevant skills and goals.
However, wanting to hear what MITRE leadership believed about the value of the student program in their own words, I had the privilege of asking Dr. Providakes for his perspective: “One thing you learn at MITRE,” he said, “is the value of public service.” What brings fulfillment to people is making an impact on the world around us and being part of a company with that mission. “One day, you will sit and tell your grandkid that [you] made the world a safer place”—for everyone.
Omkar Ratnaparkhi worked as Summer Student Investigator in the Emerging Technologies Department at MITRE. He engaged in public-interest reporting on leading-edge problem-solving approaches and technologies. A rising sophomore at Fordham University, he is majoring in International Political Economy, and plans to attend law school.
© 2020 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release. Distribution unlimited. Case number 20-2441
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