Cami’s note: I’m glad I got to interview Katie. She is a successful engineering intern on the move. I have often heard questions like, “How do I move to a new position at my internship?” Katie has some insight on this. “Where do you get your inspiration?” Listening to Katie’s story you can see it can come from many places, mentors, movies and even a lack of satisfaction. I hope you keep asking questions of the people around you. And don’t stop pushing.
What was your vision for your career before you started college?
I almost didn’t apply to college my senior year of high school. I had no vision or direction. Luckily I had an English teacher who could see that I had potential but didn’t have the confidence or guidance to direct that potential. She flat out told me that I would go to college if she had to drag me out of my house and drive me there herself.
How would you describe your college experience so far?
I would describe it as “eclectic,” or maybe “convoluted.” I started as an English major. I loved most of my classes, but I felt unfulfilled and a bit lost. I left school to work full time while I figured out what I really wanted to do.
I have always had an interest in science and engineering as a hobby, but for some reason I never took these interests seriously. I learned about electronics and programming on my own, but I believed this narrative I constructed about myself that I wasn’t a “math and science person.” Those people were geniuses and I would never be smart enough to be on their level. Eventually I met several engineers through mutual friends and I realized there wasn’t anything these people could do that I couldn’t if I just applied myself.
So I saved up money while working to move to San Francisco with the hopes of obtaining an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and going on to graduate school for physics. Currently I’m a community college student at City College of San Francisco fulfilling my pre-requisites to transfer to a 4-year college.
What was your first internship at NASA like?
It was incredibly exciting. I worked alongside other interns, but I had my own individual project that was complex and interesting. I also had guidance from a mentor who provided lots of feedback while also letting me have a lot of independence. My job was to streamline a device my mentor had developed for several different tasks including eye movement tracking and surface reconstruction using an array of programmed infrared LEDs. It was my first opportunity to design a printed circuit board, and to learn about using assembly to program the microcontroller that ran the LEDs.
The NASA facility where I worked, Ames Research Center, had lots of enrichment activities for interns like facility tours and a summer lecture series where I got to listen to professionals in all types of fields like aerospace and astrobiology discuss their work.
How did you move to your next internship at NASA?
My next summer at NASA, they asked if I’d like to join a new program where a cohort of interns would work together to build remote sensing devices to collect data in different scenarios. My team decided to design a device to be dropped on one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, to characterize the chemical components under the icy surface.
If anyone is interested in learning more about how to apply for internships at NASA and elsewhere, I wrote an article at engineergirl.com, a National Academy of Engineering website, about the topic: http://www.engineergirl.org/GetThere/HowtoGetThere/25015.aspx
How did you make the move to CERN research with the LHC?
I found out about a summer internship program for community college students at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL), where there is a collaboration of scientists working on the ATLAS detector in the LHC. A friend of mine had gone through the application process and gave me the advice to email a scientist directly to express my interest and share my resume. I would never have thought to do this on my own. I searched online and tried to find someone at LBL who was doing the kind of research I’m interested in. In response, he invited me to visit the lab and attend a meeting to learn about the current projects they are working on, and he’s now my current mentor. Everyone I have met at LBL has been incredibly gracious and encouraging. It’s been my experience that people who are established in their careers are happy to help out students, so anyone who is nervous about applying for opportunities like this shouldn’t be.
The project I’m working on has to do with the “high-luminosity” upgrade planned for the LHC. High luminosity means a high number of collisions of particles, called “events,” which in turn means we need highly sophisticated electronics to keep track of the events. So I’m running electronic diagnostic tests on prototype microchips to characterize their performance.
What did you think of the documentary Particle Fever?
I thought it was fascinating when I first saw it a few years ago. Huge, international scientific efforts are inspiring to me, and the movie really gets across the magnitude of thousands of people across the world working together in a concerted effort to learn more about how the universe works. There is a visceral awe that comes from just how large the LHC physically is. The machinery of just the ATLAS detector alone is beautiful. The movie kind of guided me into figuring out I want to be an experimentalist, and to develop new ways of building and developing exciting experiments.
Who are the most influential people in your life and why?
I find mentors everywhere. Everyone I work with teaches me something new about how to approach a problem. But overwhelmingly my boyfriend, Lee, has been a tremendous influence. He has a degree in mathematics, and talking through my work with him always opens my eyes to new ways of understanding things. He’s also been incredibly supportive in my moving across the country to pursue my goals.
What is your five year plan?
Since I’m a community college student, I need to transfer to a 4 year school to complete my Bachelor’s. My plans are up in the air at the moment until I find out where I’ve been accepted. After my Bachelor’s I’ll be applying to graduate school. I’m hoping to continue working on the ATLAS detector at LBL while I finish school.
Katie Dunne is currently an intern on the CERN – ATLAS collaboration and she was also an intern for NASA Ames Research Center during the summers of 2014 and 2015. She has written for EngineerGirl and NASA’s Student Online Journal. She currently attends City College of San Francisco and will soon transfer to complete her engineering degree Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.