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Students in the Computational Science joint PhD program between San Diego State University and University of California Irvine applied their mathematical and programming expertise to unique internship projects at prestigious national laboratories this summer.

Miko Stulajter (he/him/his)

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

On the left, Miko sits in front of a giant tree. On the right, Miko stands at his work desk with a laptop and desktop computer
What is your official role?

I am interning this summer at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) as a research intern. I am exploring using machine learning for inverse problem solving in chemistry, specifically carbon-capture technologies. In other words, I am taking a property such as band gap and using machine learning to generate new molecules that should have the desired band gap.

What was the process of getting this internship?

I found out about my current internship through an email my program’s director forwarded to all the students from the Sustainable Horizons Institute. The Sustainable Horizons Institute runs an internship program called the Sustainable Research Pathways (SRP) Program which allows students to intern at national laboratories.

The process to get the internship first involved filling out an application that was relatively simple and only required an abstract for a potential research project in September. Once accepted through the first round, we were required to make a poster and present it virtually to researchers at LBNL in order to find a mentor to work with in December. Through a four-day virtual workshop, we met with and connected with potential mentors until we found the mentor that we wanted to work with and that also wanted to work with us.

Once we had our mentor, we drafted a short research proposal with them, proposing what we would work on together over the summer. Once the proposal was done, it was submitted in order to secure funding for the summer, which had to be done by early January. After a couple of months of waiting in March, I found out I received funding to go to a national laboratory.

What does a day in your life as an intern look like?

7:30 AM: I wake up usually right before my alarm, which is set at 7:35am. Somehow my body usually manages to wake up right before my alarm each morning. I find taking a shower first thing helps me wake up as I am not a morning person. I prepare my stuff for work, which is usually just my laptop and lunch. After getting ready, I have my morning mocha (nespresso shot with chocolate milk) and breakfast (usually cereal) and set out to leave for work.

8:30 AM: I start my journey to work. There are two options for getting to LBNL from my apartment. I can either walk to downtown Berkeley and take a shuttle or walk from my apartment to the lab. I usually choose to walk to the lab which takes about 25 minutes. Walking to the lab is somewhat of a workout as the journey is a constant incline from my apartment and the “hill” that LBNL is built upon sometimes feels like a mountain. I am always grateful when the weather in the morning is on the cooler side.  

9:00 AM: Time to start coding. I pop in my earbuds, start an EDM playlist on Spotify, and get to work. First before coding, I open my laptop and see if I have any new emails to reply to before starting the “struggle” of coding. Once that is done, I start to open my terminal windows to start running and debugging code. Most of my day is spent coding and running different tests. While waiting for code to finish running, I often take a moment to get up out of my chair and move a bit before having to debug and run more code.  

11:00 AM: Twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) there are optional seminars to learn what other members at LBNL are researching. This is a great opportunity to see if any new areas of cutting-edge research catch my eye. 

12:00 PM: Almost every day, all the interns and some postdocs from my lab go get lunch together. We usually sit outside next to the cafeteria. This is a nice time to relax and just chat with members in the labs and see how their research is going.

1:00 PM: Back to the grind of coding till the end of the day.

4:00 PM: Every Friday we have an update meeting on the machine learning side of the group. This is a time to share our progress, ask for feedback and get new ideas for directions to pursue. 

6:00 PM: Time to head home. Once I leave work, I change my mindset since I value a good work-life balance. I want to work to live and not live to work. I walk back down the hill to my apartment which is nice and less exhausting then going up it. Once home I get my dinner ready and then relax for the rest of the night, either playing games with friends, watching TV, or reading. I’ve been enjoying “The Expanse” science fiction series a lot.

What has been a highlight(s) for you in the internship so far?

The best highlight from LBNL has been the view that I get to see every day as I walk up and down the hill. Work-related, it has been great to get my feet wet in machine learning, meet new people further along in their career and soak up their insights.

On the weekends, I get to go out and explore new areas around San Francisco. I’m originally from Indiana so it is amazing to see the variety in climate and topography in SF. I especially love to visit and see the redwoods and sequoias.

How does the internship connect to your other experiences as an SDSU student in and outside of the classroom?

At SDSU, I worked on two research projects which have given me some experience now as I work at a national laboratory. Doing final project was similar to what I am doing now, but now the projects are larger and more complex in nature. The classes at SDSU gave me a good foundation to start from.

How do you see this internship influencing the next steps in your career?

The internship is helping me to see what working at a national laboratory is like. It will help me decide whether I pursue working at a national lab or in industry at a tech company after I get my degree.

Delaney Farrell (she/her/hers)

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

What is your official role?

My official role is Defense Science and Technology Intern (DSTI), which is hosted by the Design Physics Division at LLNL.

My focus is astrophysics, specifically neutron stars and dense matter. My specific research project for this summer focuses on creating computational models for hydrodynamic instabilities.

What was the process of getting this internship?

I had decided I was interested in interning at a national lab last summer, and discussed my
options with my research advisors. There are a finite number of federal research laboratories in the country, and summer internships are a great way to expand your skill set and do research outside of academia.

There are two labs in California (LLNL and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), so I applied to both last fall. From there, a few potential research advisors from the labs reached out and proposed different summer projects I could work on.

After a few discussions, I accepted an offer from LLNL in February. After accepting my offer, there were some general security measures I had to complete before the summer started (like a background check and drug test).

What does a day in your life as an intern look like?

My internship this summer is completely remote, so my average week actually looks very similar to any week during the academic year. All of my research is done on the computer, so I get to work from home. Because LLNL is a federal lab, there are strict privacy regulations on sharing information, so I actually work on a virtual desktop on my laptop (meaning I’m effectively using one of their lab computers projected on my screen).

Here’s how a typical day in my life looks like:

8:00 AM: After waking up and feeding my cats, I sit down at my computer and start up my
virtual desktop. I always start the morning by checking all of my emails – I have a personal
email, a SDSU student email, a SDSU faculty email, and a LLNL email. I also check my
calendar to make sure I’m prepared for any meetings I have with any of my three advisors
(LLNL, SDSU, or UCI). Additionally, LLNL holds virtual courses, talks, and trainings, so I check to see if I have anything mandatory or interesting to attend that day.

9:00 AM – 2:00PM: I spend the bulk of my morning at my desk, working on my research project. Because my summer research project is in a field I’m not an expert in, my research involves a ton of reading before I can actually code anything. It’s basically a lot of trial and error, and many trips to both GitHub and Stack Overflow. A few times a week, I’ll meet with my mentor during this time to go over progress and next steps.

2:00 – 3:00PM: I usually take a break to make lunch around 2 pm. My boyfriend also works from home, so if we’ve both been productive that morning, we’ll take a break together and eat while watching an episode of something.

3:00 – 5:30 PM: After lunch, I finish up any tasks I have for the internship that day. Typically
towards the end of the official work day (5:00 PM ish) I will fill in my planner for the next day, so I’m prepared to get back to work in the morning.

5:30 – 7:00 PM: After I log off of work for the afternoon, I’ll usually go to the gym or go on a walk if I have energy.

7:30 – 9:00 PM: The last few hours of the day, I usually catch up on my actual academic
research for my PhD. I’m currently wrapping up a paper, so right now it looks like writing, editing, and modifying minor things on plots.

What has been a highlight for you in the internship so far?

I’ve really loved learning about LLNL and getting outside of my comfort zone. PhD research can get very specialized, so this is a nice opportunity to branch out and learn new things.

How does the internship connect to your other experiences as an SDSU student in and outside of the classroom?

The internship encapsulates many traits of graduate level learning: self study, trial and error, and a lot of communicating with your advisor. The type of research I’m doing at LLNL uses key skills I’ve learned from physics, math, and computer science courses I have taken at both SDSU and UCI, so I’m very grateful for all the learning opportunities thus far.

How do you see this internship influencing the next steps in your career?

I have always been interested in working at a national laboratory post graduation, so interning is a great way to learn about doing research at a federal level. The next step for most doctoral students post graduation is to complete a “post-doc”, which is a short (1-5 years) research position that bridges the gap between student and professional. For students in my field, many do postdocs at universities or research institutes like a national lab. If all goes well this summer, I’m hoping my internship will lead me to a postdoc position at LLNL or another national lab.

Matthew Portman (he/him/his)

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

A selfie of a young man holding a cup of matcha ice cream
What is your official role?

I am am a research assistant at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

What was the process of getting this internship?

I received this same internship last year and am continuing with the same group so it’d be cheating for me to say I did any kind of due diligence this time around! But last year, or really even the year before, I scattered my resume to the wind and one of the only places I heard back from (being in a non-traditional computer science-oriented field with a physics background) was LLNL. I took an interview over zoom and we discussed my background in programming for physics based applications, other programming concepts, and of course, the proposed project.

Although I didn’t land that position, I thought it was worth applying again the following year given how their project focuses aligned with my own expertise. When the time came around, I applied to many more projects at LLNL as well as at other national labs, but on this round, I made sure to better orient my search to physics-based research projects. LLNL again offered an interview, but this time the project was much more closely related to research I had done previously at SDSU.

Hilariously enough, I don’t think the technical part of the interview went very well! I had not worked with that kind of physics in awhile and the code was (is) written in a language I am mostly unfamiliar with. But I suppose it’s sometimes just luck of the draw and they figured I had enough experience to talk-the-talk long enough to start walking-the-walk. I received an email no more than a week later offering me the position.

This year was different. Since I had already worked with the group before and they had previously indicated they would like to work with me again, I kept in touch and when applications began to roll out, they notified me so that I could formally apply. Easy peasy!

What does a day in your life as an intern look like?

As a graduate student intern, the position is treated as if I were salaried, so none of the times I have listed is particularly strict. 

I usually arrive at 8 or 9 AM. I drop my lunch off in the breakroom and will either go straight to my computer or make some fresh coffee to get the day started. At my computer, I start the day by going through my emails and attending to whatever needs attending. Then I get started on the real work.

My real work entails running a large simulation code–usually overnight–and then assessing the results to identify interesting or useful physics that results from our selection of specific initial parameters. Sometimes I have to rerun these simulations while other times I get a chance to write some code to tweak the physics we use. This process takes anywhere from an hour to three hours but generally keeps me quite busy! 

I then take lunch around 11 AM. I opt to eat at my desk and continue working or reading papers so as to avoid staying at work all day. It’s a fine environment to work in but I quite like getting out an hour early if I can!

Lunch is usually followed by non-research meetings, presentations, intern socials, etc. which also take about an hour or two. I then finish out the rest of my day checking on the code/simulation, implementing useful features for running the simulation, or meeting with my advisor to discuss the next steps. Our meetings usually go for a long time so we prefer to finish out the day with them. And then I go home! 

What has been a highlight for you in the internship so far?

The first day I arrived on campus, I entered my office and immediately, everyone started talking. All of my office mates are great and we had a blast meeting each other and generally having a good time! Since it was my first day anyway, I had administrative work to do, so it was easy to multitask during this elongated conversation.

And just when our good-tidings seemed to be coming to a close, we had an ice cream social to attend, at which I got to enjoy free ice cream and meet more people from my cohort! I think everything worked out nicely that day.

How does the internship connect to your other experiences as an SDSU student in and outside of the classroom?

I can finally utilize some of the skills I’ve learned as a student, both hard and soft skills, to demonstrate my proficiency in the area of computational science. Furthermore, it has allowed me to network and in general befriend my peers, something that is key for any student to be successful in grad school.


How do you see this internship influencing the next steps in your career?

There is a strong possibility that I will consider LLNL as my next employer. The staff have all been amazing, the projects have been engaging, and the work environment seems to be a great fit. Even if I decide not to move forward with LLNL, I can easily see the connections I’ve made here being fruitful. I think it will really help me to understand what I want to do moving forward. I hope to use this experience to better refine my expectations for a job and to better know what I am worth. 

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