Across the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), internships are a very important experience for students and staff members alike. But for most of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic closed the campus to most NIST staff members and prevented traditional internships on campus from happening. This challenging situation inspired some innovative solutions and experiences. Taking Measure spoke to remote intern Shelby Platner and her mentor, NIST materials researcher Zachary Trautt. From late May to early August, Platner conducted her internship from Ijamsville, Maryland, with Trautt, who worked from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Our interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
I am from Ijamsville, Maryland, in Frederick County. Now I’m a sophomore at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. I am double majoring in materials science and engineering (MSE) and economics, with a minor in green engineering. Right now, I do not have any concrete career plans and am trying to keep my options open! Currently, some paths that interest me are using MSE in the aerospace/defense industry, working with MSE in green/environmental engineering, or pursuing a graduate degree in business or law.
My research career started at the Colorado School of Mines with a focus on simulating the behavior of materials at the atomic level. However, shortly after joining NIST in 2012, I shifted the focus of my work toward improving the ability of researchers to find and reuse materials data to support improved discovery and optimization of materials. The broader community has reached a consensus on a set of governing principles for data management known as the FAIR Data principles, where FAIR is an acronym for findability, accessibility, interoperability and reusability.
Shelby: My original internship plans at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division were canceled due to COVID, so I was scrambling to find some sort of internship experience in late April/early May. Through a family friend, I was able to get connected with NIST, and eventually, Zach. I am so thankful for [NIST staff members] Chris Currens and Joannie Chin for being willing to pass my resume on and for Zach for taking me on as a summer intern.
Zach: Shelby’s resume was forwarded to me, and I reached out. I was excited to explore a new mode of interaction for student internships. I think the summer research internship is an important part of the undergraduate experience. This pandemic has had a far-reaching impact on all of us, but I think it is important to find new ways for younger generations to gain research experience.
The primary focus of my internship was on the development of web-based visualization tools for materials data. Before embarking on this, I first had to gain foundational skills in computational science. These foundational skills are important as data-intensive science and engineering has become a new norm. I used the Software Carpentry website to learn languages such as Git, Unix Shell and Python. I also learned more about materials science concepts, specifically diffraction and molecular dynamics. We wanted to make sure that I understood the data I was working with in the second part of my internship. After developing these foundational skills, Zach and I worked together to visualize data using Vega, a visualization software. Some level of software development was required to use Vega, which is why the internship began with the introductory Software Carpentry lessons. A future goal is to integrate our work with a FAIR data repository to support automated visualization of data.
I had never done computational materials science before this internship. I did not even know this field existed; I assumed MSE only entailed experimental materials science. Zach was willing to teach me, and I was willing to learn, so we went from there.
This internship has given me valuable experience in computational science and understanding materials science concepts, as well as working remotely and using online resources to supplement traditional undergraduate learning. These computational science skills have and will continue to benefit me in my coursework and future internships.
A fully remote summer internship certainly introduced new challenges, but I feel like we overcame these challenges and we learned many lessons. I think Shelby and I had a fruitful and productive internship experience, which can help inform future opportunities. Firstly, our collaboration has shown that traditional summer research programs can be adapted for new conditions, such as social distancing and reduced access to scientific laboratories.
Secondly, I am very excited about what this could mean for inclusivity. Many students may not have the means to physically travel across the country to participate in a traditional summer research program, as many students may have responsibilities in supporting their family at home. If we, as a community, support fully remote summer internships as a standard option in normal times, I think we can open opportunities to individuals who otherwise may not have the ability to participate.
Shelby: While for me, an ideal internship is in person, I am glad that I was able to do a remote internship this year. I missed out on some fun aspects of traditional internships — touring labs and meeting other interns. Still, the experience I gained, even in a virtual context, was extremely valuable, so this internship was definitely worth it. Zach did a fantastic job of teaching me, introducing me to various online resources, and facilitating connections with his colleagues and network to help me get the most out of this internship.
Zach: I think a remote internship was totally worth it. With in-person internships, we have the benefit of multiple forms of communication and interaction. For example, on the NIST campus, we have access to conference rooms with whiteboards, which can be used to work through problems. This is difficult to replicate within the confines of a laptop screen, but I think we managed to pull it off.
This semester has been extremely different than previous ones, but working virtually this summer got me ready for online classes. Zoom meetings, online presentations and collaborating virtually are new challenges with a new working environment, and my internship helped prepare me for this different work style. I also believe that this internship has given me a better understanding of the applications of the concepts I am learning in my classes. This makes classes more interesting to me because I have a greater appreciation for their importance in the real world, rather than just viewing each lesson as another concept on an exam. I see the importance of internships in supplementing undergraduate education, and I am very thankful for my experience this past summer.