Humble Beginnings



Author: Cortland Johns

Once upon a time, when it was uncommon to wear a medical mask in public, I was a mechanical engineering student at the University of Oklahoma. As anyone who’s been to the Southeast will know, Oklahoma is oil country. Therefore, when I went to the career fair in the Spring semester of my junior year, I had filtered out all of the companies that had anything to do with the petroleum industry. I was left with only a few companies that piqued my interest.

One of these companies was MITRE. I had never heard of the company, but my interests were piqued by MITRE’s CMS Alliance to Modern Healthcare, part of the Health Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) that focuses on solving major healthcare problems. As an undergraduate, I participated in Biomechanics research, so I felt that working at MITRE could be a good use of my talents.

At the career fair, I met Ray Kenning, the person who would become my Group Lead, and he was able to provide more insight into MITRE as a company. He explained to me that MITRE was a not-for-profit corporation that manages FFRDCs. In fewer words, MITRE is funded by the government to solve critical problems affecting the United States. Ray described the project that I would later be assisting: predicting the surgery survival rate of patients suffering from congenital heart disease using machine learning, a term that had no meaning to me at the time except as a buzzword.

Since I was extremely impressed with MITRE and the work I could be doing, I applied for a position as a data scientist. While my mechanical engineering background is typically not associated with data science, the skills necessary to be a data scientist can be found in anyone with an engineering background: the ability to write code (which was rudimentary when I began), problem solve, and most importantly, learn.

From Student to Teacher

Flash forward to 2021. After a life-changing internship at MITRE’s Bedford site, a summer exploring Boston, and one last grueling year of my undergraduate experience, I am now working full time at MITRE’s Fort Walton Beach site, in Florida. In addition to learning new skills, I can see the Santa Rosa Sound from my office.

One of the first projects I joined as a full-time employee was called Generation AI – Gen AI for short. The goal of Gen AI is to increase exposure to artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science principles across a variety of disciplines at the collegiate level. These topics can be intimidating, but Gen AI partners (Florida International University, Marymount University, Purdue, University of Maryland, University of Texas at San Antonio) develop lesson materials that actually make artificial intelligence more accessible to non-STEM students. Our lessons have been incorporated into courses ranging from fashion to criminology to nursing. After joining the Gen AI team, I had the privilege—and challenge—of teaching a college class only months after graduating.

The first lesson I was asked to develop was an overview of artificial intelligence and machine learning for a freshman class of electrical engineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, another university we collaborate with. The professor, Dr. Maqsood Mughal, had surveyed his students at the beginning of the semester to determine how to shape the content of the course. Naturally, the most popular topic amongst his students was artificial intelligence.

Knowing that I needed to rise to the occasion, I developed a lesson that matched the students’ excitement levels about AI and helped them see a possible place for themselves in the field. From my experience as a student, I knew that the information that was the most meaningful to me was what I could apply to the real world. Therefore, I crafted my lesson around the different ways that AI affects our daily lives. During our hour together, each student selected an app from their smartphone and tried to identify how AI was being used. This led to an enthusiastic discussion about the ethics and future of artificial intelligence, inspiring the most participation in a course discussion that semester, according to Dr. Mughal.

Dr. Mughal attributed the students’ participation to the relaxed nature of my presentation. After surveying the students again, Dr. Mughal reported that his class was “absolutely delighted” with my presentation – one of the highest compliments I could receive as a former student and new lecturer. The most exciting part of my success with Dr. Mughal’s class, however, was the satisfaction of planning a session, executing the session, and getting feedback. Being able to participate in this endeavor from start to finish was extremely gratifying, and I was thrilled to hear about the students’ growing interests in AI. It is very meaningful not only to be working on important projects that have the capacity to shape the future, but also to feel respected as a valued employee at MITRE.

Young Engineers: Try This

Are you interested in a potential career at MITRE, a career in data science, or both? Here is some advice for college students trying to get internships at a corporation like MITRE:

  1. If you’re interested in data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, familiarize yourself with the programming languages Python and R. Both of these languages are free to download, and many YouTube tutorials exist to cover the most basic elements of these languages. Getting introduced to, and even becoming proficient in, these languages can be one more boost to your resume since proficiency with Python and R is such a common expectation.
  2. Research the companies whose internships you’re applying to. Being able to speak with my would-be Group Lead about my interest in MITRE’s healthcare work is what piqued his interest in me as a candidate. Being able to speak with an engineer or hiring manager at a career fair and ask questions that aren’t surface-level can provide a huge advantage in acquiring a professional internship. Here are links to two entry points for MITRE internships: The Summer Internship (which features a special learning track on artificial intelligence), and High School R&D Internships. Applications for 2022 programs will open in fall 2021.
  3. Add me (Cortland Johns), as well as other MITRE employees, to your LinkedIn profile, and send us a message about your desire to work for MITRE. We would be happy to answer any questions you have about interning and working for MITRE.

Cortland Johns graduated from the University of Oklahoma (OU) in May 2020 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. After graduation, she began working for MITRE full-time as a data scientist in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. She is particularly passionate about the application of systems engineering principles to healthcare systems and increasing access to knowledge of machine learning across many disciplines. In her free time, you can find Cortland doing yoga on the beach or watching OU football.

© 2021 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 21-0974.

MITRE’s mission-driven team is dedicated to solving problems for a safer world. Learn more about MITRE.

See also:

Coming Back to Make a Difference, Find a Passion, and Change the World

Mentoring the Workforce of the Future: The Emerging Technologies Summer Student Program

Artificial Intelligence Helps MITRE Save Lives During the Pandemic

The Power of Geospatial Data In Developing Countries

Dr. David E. Willmes on Solving Global Food Insecurity

When AI and Psychology Meet, Insights Emerge

Creating an AI-Savvy Workforce for a Strong Future

MITRE’s Pearls of Expertise at FIU ShellHacks

Interview with Dr. Michael Balazs on Generation AI Nexus

So You Want to Think Like a Data Scientist? The Importance of Visualizations in the Data Science Workflow

Enhance Your Data Science Toolkit: Add-Ons and Updates to the Most Commonly Used Tools

Interview with Ali Zaidi on Designing Lessons in Artificial Intelligence

The World as It Will Be: Workforce Development Within and Beyond MITRE

Mist Computing: Everything Computing Everywhere

Internet of Things Security: Challenges and Solutions

5G: How it Works and What it Brings

Will Quantum Computers Revolutionize My Daily Life? Not in the Ways You Might Think

The Person at the Other End of the Data

A Social Scientist Examines the Role of Technology in our Lives

Turkeys vs Swans, with Imanuel Portalatin


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This