Collaboration, confidence, critical thinking: CITRIS internships teach UC students essential skills

Collage of three photos: A close-up of a computer monitor with code showing; a young person with long dark hair sitting at a computer on a lab bench; the front side of a robotic vehicle showing cameras and sensors.

The inaugural cohort of undergraduate interns in the CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program gained real-world experience in areas of tech innovation central to California’s future, while their hosts benefited from sharp minds and fresh perspectives.

This summer, 84 University of California undergraduates explored careers in aviation, climate resilience, digital health, robotics and semiconductors as interns in the eight-week CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program, which launched in spring 2022 with significant support from the state

The students came from an array of backgrounds and academic majors, and they represented, in roughly equal numbers, the four campuses affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS): UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz. They were matched with 45 different host organizations that ranged in size from small startups, nonprofits and campus laboratories to multinational corporations and national labs, with locations across the state and headquarters around the world.  

In addition to their internship duties, the cohort attended weekly online workshops and guest seminars, exposing them to a variety of career paths, networking opportunities and skills to help them thrive in the workplace. This first year, many of the internships occurred virtually as well, giving students access to organizations that may have otherwise been out of reach.

Building communication skills, battling imposter syndrome

Zoe Wilf, a fourth-year student at UC Davis, found that a major takeaway from her internship was successful communication — particularly with her fellow engineers at Ceres Robotics Inc., a company in Palo Alto that develops landers, rovers and software for planetary exploration.

As a mechanical engineering intern, Wilf participated in trade studies and designed and modeled the suspension system of a lunar rover with CAD, or computer-aided design, software.

Collage of portraits of five undergraduate students.
Five of the interns in the 2022 CITRIS Workforce Innovation cohort. From left: Zoe Wilf, UC Davis; Yeiji Lee, UC Berkeley; Zahra Baxi, UC Berkeley; Jim Song, UC Merced; Michael Fischer-Haagens, UC Santa Cruz.

“With the help of CITRIS’s workshops, I was able to ask questions that were not only effective, but were more nuanced,” Wilf said. “They helped me get the answers I needed. I’m glad that I have the recordings of all the workshops to refer back to.”

For Yeiji Lee, a third-year UC Berkeley student, the learning opportunities aren’t over yet. She spent her summer with Advantest, a Japanese company that manufactures automatic test equipment for the semiconductor industry. As part of the company’s San Jose-based design interface team, she worked on a chamber to help minimize noise while devices are cooled during testing. 

“I entered this project during the prototyping stage, so a lot of my contribution went into design, simulation and testing,” Lee said.

With the company’s support, “I will be continuing this internship until the end of winter,” she said, when the product is intended to go into production. Her next steps include a design review and building a prototype.

Zahra Baxi, a third-year student studying human-centered design at UC Berkeley, worked with UC Santa Cruz’s OpenLab Collaborative Research Center, a interdisciplinary, faculty-led research center that emphasizes the intersections among art, science and technology. 

There, they worked closely with OpenLab co-founder and UC Santa Cruz art professor Jennifer Parker to support The Algae Society Bio Art Design Lab, an international collective of artists and scientists that explores humanity’s interdependence with that ubiquitous and unassuming eukaryote. During their internship, Baxi created conceptual designs, storyboards and scripts for digital multimedia projects about the effects of climate change on the Arctic.

Baxi said their biggest challenge was the learning curve; they had to do a significant amount of research quickly to familiarize themself with the subject at hand. But they picked up important insight into how organizations value workers with varying talents.

“I had a lot of impostor syndrome, where I’d think I might not be well qualified for things,” they said. “But the OpenLab helped me see that I have skills that I can share with people. They would learn from me, and I can learn from them.”

This was a good experience to get to know how professional environments operate and what mentoring is really about.

Michael Fischer-Haagens, UC Santa Cruz

Something that surprised Jim Song, who graduated from UC Merced this spring with a bachelor’s degree in political science, was how science, technology, engineering and mathematics workplaces still need people with humanities and social sciences skills.

“It definitely opened up my mind to jobs I can look for,” Song said of his time with STEM education organization RePicture, where he helped run a career exploration program for high school and college students. “As a social sciences major, I was mainly applying to political and campaign positions, but now, I see how there are roles in any company, regardless of your major.”

As an aspiring music teacher, Michael Fischer-Haagens, a second-year piano performance student at UC Santa Cruz who also worked with RePicture, found the mentorship aspect of the internship especially useful — from the task of directly instructing students to the general exposure to a professional workplace.

“I had no understanding of what actual jobs were like,” he said. “This was a good experience to get to know how professional environments operate and what mentoring is really about.” 

Breaking out of the ‘echo chamber’ 

As technology evolves and scientific research advances, companies in high-tech fields often look to avoid stagnation by bringing in fresh perspectives. The CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program connects host organizations to new ideas and skilled talent, while also preparing the next generation to enter the working world.

The Building Efficiency for a Sustainable Tomorrow (BEST) Center, a National Science Foundation-funded collaborative within the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE) at UC Berkeley, promotes advanced education for commercial building technicians and research in high-performance, energy-efficient buildings. According to Peter Crabtree, principal investigator (PI) for the BEST Center, CITRIS Workforce Innovation offered an opportunity to engage UC students in the center’s sustainability efforts.

BEST’s intern, John Tuan Nguyen, a second-year biochemistry and microbiology major at UC Santa Cruz, expressed an interest in decarbonization and electrification strategies for buildings. During his internship, he examined the building codes of various major cities to compare and contrast the tactics each municipality took to enforce its codes and improve its structures.

“The program is very valuable for increasing undergraduate students’ awareness of the broader mission of sustainability,” Crabtree said. “It allows students to dig deeper and understand the challenges and opportunities that are out there.”

A young person wearing a face covering adjusts a small four-wheeled vehicle resting on a lab bench.
UC Merced student Amrita Mohandas prepares a robotic vehicle for teleoperation. On the screen behind her is an algorithm developed for automatic emergency braking. Photo by Adriel Olmos

The hands-on nature of the program also allows students to experience different fields in more depth than classes can provide, while still giving them a safe environment in which to explore, noted Traci Ho Kim, vice president of DiamondStream Partners.

The West Coast-based venture capital firm invests in companies with innovative ideas in aerial mobility, from autonomous aircraft freight systems to hybrid-electric propulsion technologies — a mission that aligns well with the work of the CITRIS Aviation research initiative.

DiamondStream hosted two interns, whose projects included forecasting future trends in the aerial mobility industry and reassessing the user interface and data structures of the company’s core relational database.

If we can help some of them with their career, that’s a win. You never know where the next great company or entrepreneur is going to come from.

Traci Ho Kim, DiamondStream Partners

As an organization that thrives on change, DiamondStream benefits greatly from having students on its team, Kim shared.

“You want students to bring questions and concerns to help broaden your perspective so that you’re not stuck in your own echo chamber,” she said. 

“If we can help some of them with their career, that’s a win. You never know where the next great company or entrepreneur is going to come from.”

A close-up of a robotic vehicle with wires and computer chips exposed. A blurry hand reaches around one side.
Amrita Mohandas, an intern in the UC Merced Castro Lab, checks the power supply of a small robotic vehicle intended to gather data in forests. Photo by Adriel Olmos

For Aelisa Carr, co-founder of RePicture, a public benefit corporation with a focus on increasing the diversity of engineering and technology fields, CITRIS Workforce Innovation was notably beneficial on two fronts.

“Our premier summer program is for students, by students. Having these really bright students who are interested in STEM fields contributed in meaningful ways,” she said.

“The CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program was also very attractive to us because we operate with a very small budget — we’re pre-revenue.” 

A record five interns, the most hosted by any organization in this inaugural year, helped handle logistics for RePicture’s three-week summer program, which taught high school and college students how to build portfolios, write resumes and polish presentation skills.

“We use the same team-building skills you would use in an actual STEM project,” Carr said. “The students really got a true work experience, and in turn, we got their talent, ideas, enthusiasm and time.”

Training tomorrow’s tech leaders

On Sept. 19, the first CITRIS Workforce Innovation cohort wrapped up their internships with a virtual symposium, where they shared presentations on their work with host organization representatives, professors, friends and family. Many of the students will receive a certificate in careers in emerging technologies for their efforts, recognizing their commitment to the program and, of course, their employers.

With support from the state’s initial award, CITRIS expects to continue the Workforce Innovation Program for the next four years, matching 80–100 UC students with paid summer positions at organizations in high-tech sectors each year. And CITRIS is committed to recruiting and placing as diverse and dynamic a cohort in the future as in this first year.

A four-wheeled robot rests on a lab bench. Displayed on the computer monitor next to it is a young person wearing a UC Merced sweatshirt waving and holding a phone with the camera facing out.
CITRIS Workforce Innovation intern Amrita Mohandas develops a connection between a robotic vehicle and a remote computer to stream live video and send and receive computer data. Photo by Adriel Olmos

“We are pleased that we were able to translate the investment from the state into tangible outcomes for students and their host organizations in this first year of the program,” said CITRIS Executive Director Camille Crittenden, who helped guide the Workforce Innovation launch with the able assistance of program manager Nicole-Marie Cotton. The team looks forward to building on the students’ accomplishments and interests in future years, as well as evaluating the program’s longer-term impact by tracking the career paths of its alumni.

“I was especially gratified to see the diversity represented in this inaugural cohort, with students participating from throughout northern California and from many different backgrounds,” said Crittenden, noting that the group spoke more than a dozen languages, with nearly a third the first in their families to attend college.

“The CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program is a great example of how public higher education can contribute to economic mobility and increase the technological competitiveness of the state,” she said.

Top image: Amrita Mohandas, a fourth-year computer science and engineering major at UC Merced, worked with assistant professor Ricardo de Castro to develop ground robots for forestry research. Photo by Adriel Olmos