Unexpected Connections

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Unexpected Connections

Following Up During An Internship Can Pay Off


Patricia Engel, 2006 SPS Intern, currently an environmental scientist at Eastern Research Group

Patricia Engel (right) at the CNSF exhibition on Capitol Hill with, left to right, 2006 SPS interns Katherine Zaunbrecher and Kacey Meaker and Congressman Vernon Ehlers. Photo by Liz Dart Caron.

Looking up, I saw a colorful double helix hanging still, several stories tall, illuminated by filtered sunlight from the 12th-floor skylight. My first impression was of open space. I sat on a bench next to imitation palm trees, waiting for a Friday afternoon meeting at the end of my SPS summer internship. I was surprised to find such stillness in the building that is the heart of basic science research in the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, VA. Little did I know then that 4 years later I’d be working in that building, my finger on the pulse.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It all started a few months earlier, when my SPS internship began—not at NSF, but at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, MD.

Although at NIST I spent 8 hours a day running numerical calculations of the minimal energy structure of aqueous arsenic (a toxic groundwater pollutant), I was
determined to learn everything I could about how science operates at the national level. At lunch, the interns and I joined scientists swapping tales of government life. I’d attend lectures and, on special occasions, join other SPS interns for tours of NASA Headquarters, the Pentagon, and the American Center for Physics.

On one particularly eventful night, the SPS interns trekked to the House of Representatives Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill for the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) exhibition and reception. A fascinating crush of people gathered to discuss federal funding for basic research. There were members of Congress, aides, lobbyists, researchers, association representatives, and members of the press. Dr. Jack Hehn, then director of education at AIP, coached us on every detail: where to stand and wait to meet dignitaries in demand, how to approach, when to give a handshake, and how to follow through after an encounter.

At the CNSF event, I bumped into geophysicist Jill Karsten, NSF’s program director for geosciences diversity and education—a chance encounter that would change everything. Buoyed by Hehn’s mentoring, I followed up with her after the event and arranged a meeting at NSF.

And that brings me back to the fake palm trees. During our meeting at NSF, Karsten introduced me to Lara Hutto, her science assistant, who had studied in my home state and worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where I would begin my PhD studies in the fall. Hutto invited me to a foundation-wide gathering of science assistants where Kathie Olsen, then deputy director of NSF, spoke.

What a lucky coincidence! Olsen drew quite the crowd. She went around the table asking the science assistants about their backgrounds and what they were studying. In my weekly journal, I wrote, “The whole experience visiting NSF was phenomenal and inspirational. I might like to work there someday.”
Four years later, I decided to move halfway across the country and into a cubicle down the hall from Karsten’s office. A chain of events that began with a connection I made during my SPS internship and a bit of persistence eventually landed me a glorious position as a science assistant myself. //

More Information

For more information about Pat's experience as an SPS intern, visit her intern page at www.spsnational.org/programs/internships/2006/engel.htm.

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