LaGuardia students Karan Kumar, Rabeca Mohammed, and Josselyn Velasquez share their experience with the research programs and internships they participated in.
The authors of this short article – Karan, Josselyn, and Rabeca, were (and some of them still are) research students of Dr. Roman Senkov. Under supervision of Dr. Senkov, they participated in various research projects related to theoretical nuclear physics. These projects include accurate calculation of nuclear level densities and understanding the basics of Fermi-gas and constant temperature models, thermalization, nuclear pairing correletions, and others physical fenomena. All these students were active members of LaGuardia Physics and Astronomy club and LaGuardia Society of Physics Student.
The questions below were prepared by Drs. Roman Senkov, Lucia Fuentes, and Amish Khalfan.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Hi! I'm Karan Kumar. I am a former LaGuardia Community College student. I graduated in Fall 2018 from LaGuardia Community College. I transferred to Stony Brook University. I am currently majoring in Physics and Applied Mathematics and Statistics. I intend to graduate in Spring 2021 from Stony Brook University. I am taking a gap year to work in the industry and then apply to graduate school. I want to pursue my graduate study in high energy physics. My areas of interest in research are Forward Physics, Dark Matter, and Machine Learning in Physics. In my free time, I like to visit parks. You can find me in Central Park after the pandemic.
My name is Josselyn Velasquez, and I am a transfer student at The City College of New York pursuing a Mechanical Engineering bachelor's degree. During my time at LaGuardia community college, I participated in different extracurricular activities like the NIH Bridges Program, Society of Physics Students, and President Society. In my sophomore year, I joined the science tutoring center as a physics-chemistry tutor. In my free time, I enjoy crafting, reading, and programming.
I'm Rabeca, a Mechanical Engineering sophomore at the LaGuardia Community College and the President of the college's STEM Club. I intend to graduate in Spring 2021 and transfer to a four-year engineering college in Fall 2021. Coming from an engineering family, I have naturally gravitated towards engineering. I'm interested in Robotics and Aeronautics, specifically in the Design and Testing aspects of it. I designed a concept plane on Autodesk Fusion 360, 3D printed it, and presented it to my class for my end-of-semester FYS project. Right then, I felt more in my element than ever, so I decided to take up aeronautical engineering as my career. I interned at Microsoft (remotely) last summer and found that I liked web development, too. I've researched on a Nuclear Physics topic regarding level densities with Dr. Senkov in the past and would continue working with him in the NIH Bridges Program until next summer. Apart from my academic/career pursuits, I thoroughly enjoy playing first-person-shooter games and listening to rap music.
How did you find out information about the program into which you were ultimately accepted? What sources do you advise your peers to navigate through in searching for such programs?
Karan: I was accepted to a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program. Under the SULI program, you get to work with scientists at the Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratories. There are 17 laboratories across the United States and I did my internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory. I heard about this program in my data structure class at LaGuardia Community College. The first step student should take to find an internship is to talk to a professor and ask them about an internship opportunity. The Department of Energy has a program for community college students called Community College Internships (CCI). I highly recommend students to apply for it. You can also apply to the SULI program. The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) (https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu) program is a great source to search for summer internships. The other platform that is good for finding an internship is LinkedIn. If you haven't already, create an account on LinkedIn.
Rabeca: Finding programs in a college, especially a community college, can be quite challenging for a freshman, as many say. One can benefit more if they search for programs on the web. A lot of non-profit organizations can be found on Facebook or Reddit which directly deal with said programs. For example, Reddit has a community (r/REU) that talks about Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). Given the dire situation, most of these REUs were either canceled or turned remote. A user made a Google sheet tracking the statuses of REUs in 2020 (follow this link). I was a member of a Facebook group called Rewriting the Code, a non-profit organization that supports and empowers college, graduate and early career women in tech, through intersectional communities, mentorship, industry experience and educational resources, to become the next generation of engineers and tech leaders. The group is always notified with opportunities and I discovered Microsoft’s New Technologist program through it. I’d strongly advise students joining LinkedIn and connecting to as many professionals as possible so they can find opportunities for programs as such.
Josselyn: I participated in two different programs at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL). I learned about them through my participation in the National Institute of Health (NIH) program at LaGuardia. My main source was my physics professor and mentor, Dr. Roman Senkov, so I would recommend creating a friendly connection with your professors. Ask them if they know about any opportunity like research or internships.
Was it difficult to apply for your program? How many applications did you send out? In your opinion, what are the most important factors that can help students gain acceptance into such programs?
Karan: It was an easy process. You can't send more than one application. You will need to enter personal information, personal statements, and recommendations. The personal statements and recommendations are the key elements. A personal statement should focus on your accomplishments, what skills you have, and why you chose their company/program. Employers are looking for students who are eager to learn, and your statement should reflect that. And give specific examples about the company or work they did that inspired you to apply for the internship. You can ask for recommendations from your professors. You will need at least two recommendations and make sure the person who is writing your recommendation knows you well.
Rabeca: No, it wasn’t difficult. I sent only one application out. The application process was pretty straightforward; there was no interview. Because Microsoft values leadership, collaboration and passion over competition, the questions consisted of your willingness to help the community; your readiness to work with a team; describing a time when you overcame an obstacle; and your vision of a possible future of tech. Students who can portray such traits are sought after.
Josselyn: First, I participated in the mini-semester program at BNL. I sent one application, plus one recommendation letter. Then, the second program called Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) at BNL required a more complex application where I had to write up to 4 essays. In my opinion, the key factor that got me the SULI experience was my research done at LaGuardia. Secondarily, when writing the essays make sure that you are responding to the prompt question and take advantage of the writing center.
Was the program you were accepted into conducted remotely or did you have to travel to a research facility? Were you offered a stipend or any other form of compensation to support your research work?
Karan: The program was conducted remotely due to COVID-19. We were given a weekly stipend.
Rabeca: The venue was initially planned to be on-site in the Microsoft campus in Redmond, WA. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was turned remote. I was offered a bi-weekly stipend.
Josselyn: The mini-semester program was in-person and I stayed for one week at BNL. It was my first time at a national laboratory and the experience was great but there was no stipend, although they covered travel expenses. On the other hand, the SULI program was remote because of COVID-19, and since it was a full-time collaboration, there was a generous stipend pay weekly.
Please describe the research project you worked on. What exactly did you do during the program, and what tasks did you complete?
Karan: I performed simulations on the BNL Scientific Data Computing Center to study the flux of tau neutrinos in the forward direction of the proton-proton collision at the LHC. It has been established that the Large Hadron Collider produces a large flux of tau neutrinos in the forward direction of the proton-proton collision. There have been many experiments proposed at LHC to calculate tau neutrino flux. Our goal was to provide a simulated estimate of the tau neutrino event rate with uncertainties. My task was to run a simulation and understand the results.
Rabeca: It is a 7-week innovation academy, where New Techs learn all about the product lifecycle and create a prototype solution for the modern customer. They also simultaneously get real world experience in app development and gain hands-on training from senior staff at Microsoft. I worked with a team of five and, as a team, was tasked to create a web app with a problem-solution concept (‘Dismantling Misinformation’), write a functional spec, conduct usability tests, and design a user-centric prototype. As I was new to object-oriented programming, I took up the task of designing and building the sign-in page of the web app, which called for minimum componentization. This page aimed at only allowing authorized users in the web app. I included a form from Bootstrap – the most popular front-end framework – which accepted authorized emails and passwords and directed the user to the homepage upon submission.
Josselyn: My SULI research project involved developing a simulation from a gamma-ray decay simulator code RAINIER and then comparing the results to CapGam, ENSDF, and ENDF to create an approach for evaluating capture gamma spectra of manganese-55. It was a 10 week program, so in the beginning, I started by understanding and analyzing the settings of the code RAINIER, which was written in C++ using ROOT, a data analysis program. After that, I was trained to read different nuclear databases offered by BNL and IAEA, to select the ones to compare with our simulation results. As part of the program, I wrote a research paper and presented a poster in two different meetings.
Did you learn any new skills while attending the program? If so, what are these skills?
Karan: I learned about the detectors at the LHC and the working principles of many other detectors around the world. I understood the basics of particle physics and the ROOT software. I gained a deep understanding of FORTRAN and learned to run simulations with it. Writing a scientific report and making a poster was a valuable skill that I learned during my internship. There was also a lecture series on selected topics of physics. There were a series of events for professional development.
Rabeca: I learned a mix of technical and soft skills. As far as technical skills go, I learned TypeScript+React, Git/GitHuB, Program Management, unit-testing, write specs, and how to collaborate on VS Code. Moreover, I believe my team-working and time management skills have further improved after joining this program.
Josselyn: This summer experience allowed me to improve my programming skills and introduce me to ROOT Cern which is a powerful program for data analysis. Moreover, my knowledge in nuclear physics and nuclear reactions has deepened by learning how to work with different nuclear databases like CapGam, ENDSF, and EXFOR.
What were the most challenging aspects of the program for you? Please describe your best experience while participating in the program?
Karan: The most challenging aspect of the program was that it was done remotely. I am not one of those lucky people who can focus at home. The theory part of my research required an understanding of Quantum Field Theory (QFT). QFT is a graduate-level topic and on top of that, the physics in the forward region of pp collision is not well known. The theory was quite challenging to understand. I never thought of working on a project that could potentially lead to new physics. Working with scientists across the globe was an experience in itself.
Rabeca: Because I was new to object-oriented programming and data management, I felt like I lacked the expertise to come up with a sign-in system that stored the user ID and tracked the user by it. To combat this, I decided to instead integrate the Google Sign-In into the web app via an API call. However, I realized it was too late for that and had to stick to my original plan that was, virtually, not the best method. Moreover, I had Computer Science students from Stanford University and Georgia Tech in my team so at points, I felt like I was slowing my team. There’s no doubt that I felt the impostor syndrome to a high extent. Having come across some of the best people who have directly contributed to my growth, I owe a lot to the program. I've learned more coding in this program than in any of my CS classes. Seeing the remote environment initially, I wasn't sure how I would benefit from it; but I'm glad everything sailed smoothly because of the employees’ constant assurance and readiness to help us all. My teammates helped me whenever I was stuck in my task. We went from being colleagues to friends because the connection, respect, and humility that fostered within us went beyond corporate levels.
Josselyn: Definitely, the most challenging aspect was the theory behind the project. I did not have any conceptual background in nuclear physics, so I tried to put in extra hours by reading books and trying to understand the theory. Besides that, I enjoyed the early meeting with my mentors, they were great and not only gave me professional insights but their support throughout the internship was invaluable.
Do you feel the knowledge you gained from your coursework at LaGuardia prepared you well for certain tasks you carried out in the program? If so, cite a specific example.
Karan: Learning the C++ language helped me a lot in finishing my research. Learning to write in latex software in SCP231 class was useful. Having research experience in my SCP 231 sharpened my problem-solving skills. The point of research is to use the skills you have and learn skills that you don't have. If you don't know something, ask for help.
Rabeca: Not particularly because this program was totally out of my major and its relevant courses.
Josselyn: In my last semester at LaGuardia, I took MAC102 which is C++ for engineers. There I learned that C++ is a programming language needed or desirable to have, and Python are great technical skills that add up to your resume too.
What is your overall impression about the program? In your opinion, how does attending such a program help to shape your academic future? For instance, did your career interests change after partaking in the research methodologies of the program?
Karan: Overall it was fun experience for me. I learned a lot from this program. Before going to this program, I had no idea which field of study I wanted to pursue in graduate study. After attending the program and talking to experts, I decided to go into experimental high energy physics. This SULI program had many events to help students to apply to graduate school.
Rabeca: I believe it is a great program, especially for undergrad CS freshmen and sophomores. You get to put on both PM and SWE hats and work with some of the best tech professionals from a great company. You also get to connect with professionals from other fields – hardware, IoT, AI, analytics, design, etc. – who help you navigate your desired careerpath. It’s also a chance to learn a myriad of skills and make great connections. My career interests didn’t change much but I believe the skills that I’ve gained throughout this program would help me a lot in my current field.
Josselyn: I had a great time at the SULI Program despite the remote set-up. I talked about my project, but the program offered much more, like a meeting to get-to-know each other, lectures about different science topics, and the opportunity to relate what you learn in the classroom to real-world applications. Being a first-generation student in my family, I usually find myself doubting my academics or professional path. I did not know about the research world or nuclear physics until I went to LaGuardia. I’m bouncing around with the idea of specializing in nuclear engineering.
Looking back, is there anything in particular you wish you had done differently while attending the program?
Karan: I gave my best shot. I am happy with my results. I am still working with my mentor after the summer program, so I cannot think of anything that I would have done differently. Maybe ask more questions. One thing that I suggest is to make as many connections as you can.
Rabeca: I wish I had put more time in independent learning so that I could’ve modified the web app to fit the modern standards of apps.
Josselyn: At the beginning of the program, I got overinvested in figuring out the code line by line which was not the most efficient approach. The communication side was challenging as well and it could have been better, since it was my first experience working fully remote, expressing my doubts or concerns was a tough task. But overall, I feel like I learned so much.