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Intern Confidential: Casey Alvarado

In our continuing Intern Confidential series, The Wire interviewed a number of Olin students who spent their summer interning at various companies around the country. We asked the students how they got their internship, what they learned, their biggest mistake and everything in between.

Where are you from?

I’m a senior at Olin College this fall, studying Electrical and Computer Engineering. I’m from Houston, Texas.

Where was your internship?

I was an engineering intern at IBM’s T.J Watson Research center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., north of New York City.

What did your work there entail?

I explored a new area for IBM—the Internet of body, enhancing the health domain with IBM’s resources and technology. I used transmitters and receivers to identify the location of a person in their home, as well as more medical information about a person in their home

How did you get this internship?

I applied to IBM when I was looking for jobs. I got rejected from the positions I wanted. However, one of the hiring managers loves Olin so, one day, he saw my resume on their internal website, emailed me, and asked for an interview. We talked about the technical aspect of my past projects, some new technical questions, and I got hired. IBM contacted me for an interview two days before I was supposed to let another company know my decision to work for them. I kept the other company waiting until they emailed me the next day, requiring an answer. It was really weird and I would have done something differently to make it less weird.

How do you think this internship will help your continuing education at Olin, as well as your future work in the professional field?

This summer was interesting because very few experiments of mine worked out or matched my desired results. So, I failed a lot. Olin has made me very comfortable with failure due to our learning motto that we learn from our mistakes. However, it was a little terrifying that this could actually be a part of research. Apparently in research, you fail more times than you succeed, because every project you explore is unknown territory to everyone! You’re like a Neil Armstrong and the science world is your moon. I would describe my project this summer as a long list of failures, but my manager suggested instead that my project “ruled out what does not work.”

While Olin does prepare us for failure, we don’t always think to engineer around what doesn’t work. We dive straight into projects that we believe will work and when things don’t work, we come up with a solution around the problem or we run out of time. However, I never really thought about what happens to the theory outside of the boundaries, what exactly breaks and why? This summer I had the time, resources, and encouragement to analyze what violated the laws of physics and how to reframe my project to avoid violating any physics and get the results I needed.

This summer made me a better engineer because when something didn’t work, I was forced to use my creative juices and physics to come up with a theory about why it didn’t work, and experiment to test my theory. My manager considers this “real engineering,” working with the real noise of the world, with the real problems that lie beyond theory to understand how to avoid or use these breaking points in our applications.

What was a typical day like?

A typical day includes taking the IBM shuttle to work (it kind of feels like a school bus for large kids). We started our work day around 9am. I sit in a large conference room with a lot of other interns. It’s always busy, but we all feel comfortable asking any of the other interns in the room for another pair of eyes debugging. Usually throughout the day, there are guest speakers or employees that give talks in the auditorium about their research. I usually have lunch with the interns in my conference room. Right after lunch, the other interns and I usually toss a frisbee around or play ping-pong. I won my first ever ping-pong game, it was awesome!

My workday usually ended at 5:30pm, when we take the large shuttles back to our hotels. Then in the afternoon, usually I’ll go the gym, make dinner and/or hang out with the other interns.

 

Did you pick up any new skills?

I learned how to present my results to anyone. The person might not need to know every detail, just what’s relevant to them. If you’re stuck, asking the right questions to the right people could get you unstuck. I also learned a lot about how to frame a problem.

What was your biggest mistake? 

Well, on Mondays the cafeteria has southern-themed food. Ribs, mac and cheese, and fried chicken are staples. I would say the biggest mistake I made was trying those ribs and thinking that upstate New York could make decent rib

What did your internship teach you about the real world?

Engineering wise, I have learned that the real world isn’t perfect. There will always be a multitude of factors interfering with your problem or results. Luckily, Olin teaches us how to frame problems and iteratively build up to a solution. Socially, I have learned that people like happy people and people that ask questions.

Most frustrating thing?

The most frustrating thing is the gender imbalance, honestly. At a handful of intern events it felt like I was surrounded by males and met very few females. I was curious, so I stalked the IBM Research at Yorktown Heights intern Facebook group. The group has 247 total members with two female administrators, and 55 of these 245 members (minus the two administrators) identified as female on their Facebook profile. Of course, there is some tolerance on this number, accounting for the female interns that do not have a Facebook page or have restrictive privacy settings. But this ratio of female to male was surprising to me, coming from an Olin background. I knew that an imbalance existed, but something this dramatic was unimaginable. At least four of the guys here have explained to me that they don’t see many females in their labs at their school. I guess we should start getting women in there so they can develop the brand new experience of working with a woman!

If you had to do it over, what might you do differently? 

A few times this summer we had guest lecturers that would speak to us about their research. This would usually happen in a large auditorium with most of the IBM community present. On several occasions, I had questions for the lecturers, but I never got the courage to ask. Who knows why? I’m not usually shy, but I guess the large number of people in the auditorium intimidated me. The smart thing to do would have been to raise my hand and ask because the researchers themselves would have provided me with the best answers to my questions about their research. I would also have scheduled time to meet with the vice president of my department earlier. I met with him about two weeks before the end of my internship. He was a phenomenal person. He was funny, he listened to me, and he provided genuine insight into my future career. Not only do I regret not contacting him earlier, I regret not networking more and not establishing those connections to grad students at prestigious universities that I will be applying to.

Do you have any advice for others? 

I guess my advice to get here would be to apply to anything you could happily see yourself doing. You gotta apply to get accepted, you gotta take ‘em to make ‘em! Even though you might get rejected, maybe your resume will also be forwarded to someone who loves Oliners and then you, too, could get an interview out of the blue and then an internship! I’ve learned a lot during my time here about many different things. I’ve done this by talking to people and carrying around a notebook with me. A good way to learn more is to carry around a notebook and jot down anything you don’t know that you would like to know. Not only does it make the people you are talking to feel interesting, but if you actually follow through with googling things you jotted down, you will learn so much!

Most surprising experience…​

IBM Research is a very exploratory department. They are legitimately taking crazy “what if" ideas and exploring the realms of possibility. I was thrilled with my project. My job was going to be exploring the capabilities and the feasibility of using this method for patient localization. This is a very new field for IBM Research and I was assigned to be one of the investigators. We had no idea if technical localization with my resources would work or not, but I would be in charge of finding out!

The fact that we were working with absolute brand new ideas was surprising, different and absolutely thrilling!