‘Experience is power’: CITRIS Workforce Innovation sets up UC students for success

Collage of five photos: A young woman smiling in a bio lab; a young man showing off a set of microprocessors; a young person leaning over a wheeled robot making adjustments; a person wearing sunglasses adjusting a drone's wing in a grassy field; two young people in cleanroom suits standing at a piece of machinery.
First and second photos from left by UC Santa Cruz

The second cohort of interns from four University of California campuses spent a summer working with novel technologies and research, developing high-demand, hands-on skills, and gaining insight into unexpected career paths.

“CITRIS Workforce Innovation really helped me to reflect on what I was doing in my internship and see the bigger picture,” said Debora Ghosh, a fourth-year student studying molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It helped me to realize the impact this work has on my life and career goals, and on other people’s lives, too.”

Ghosh, who spent her summer working with venture capital firm and accelerator StartUp Health, was one of 80 students from the University of California (UC) in the second cohort of interns in the CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program.

Launched in 2022 with support from the state of California, CITRIS Workforce Innovation offers eight-week paid placements in the high-demand sectors of aviation, digital health, climate and energy, robotics, and semiconductors to undergraduate students from the four campuses associated with the Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS): UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz. 

This year, students were matched with 61 different host organizations — a sharp increase from the 45 startups, established companies, nonprofits, and university and national laboratories recruited as hosts last year.

Representing the rich diversity of California

In accordance with the program’s goal to represent the rich variety of the UC community, the 2023 CITRIS Workforce Innovation cohort was remarkably diverse. Over half of the group were first-generation college students, and nearly half — 46 percent — indicated that they qualified for Pell Grants, signifying an annual family income of $45,000 or less. 

While the National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in 2021 that only 35 percent of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce identify as women, a full 55 percent of this year’s internship group identified as female, with an additional 2 percent identifying as nonbinary. 

And out of all program interns representing UC Merced, a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) in the heart of California’s Central Valley, 57 percent came from Hispanic, Latinx or Latine backgrounds. In contrast, the 2021 NSF report found that only 15 percent of the current STEM workforce identifies as Hispanic.

“In the 2023 cohort, 52 percent of selected students were first-generation college students,” said Nicole-Marie Cotton, CITRIS program manager for workforce development. “This speaks to the impact this program may have on preparing students who have less social capital to gain important networking opportunities and professional development skills.”  

In addition to the work assigned by their host organizations, CITRIS Workforce Innovation interns also attended weekly skill-focused workshops to help set them up for success in the workplace. Frequent guest speakers from industry shared their own stories, demonstrating the myriad pathways to productive STEM careers.

“With a focus on expanding diversity and gender equity in tech, CITRIS not only achieved diverse representation in our top talent pool — we also provided the needed support to bridge from academics to the workplace,” said Jill Finlayson, managing director of the CITRIS Innovation Hub, which oversees the Workforce Innovation Program to expand on-ramps for next-generation talent and greater workforce inclusion. 

“Through weekly professional development activities, reflections and connections, students leave the program with both experiences and insights to better plot their career paths,” she said.

Learning patience amid steep learning curves

Through its careful intern-host matching process and wide-ranging workshop curriculum, the CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program exposes students to career options they may not have expected. Ghosh, a premedical student, expressed interest in health entrepreneurship in her application and was pleased to be paired with StartUp Health as a media fellow. 

Debora Ghosh.

Ghosh described her experience as “interesting and holistic.” Not only did she create social media content, update websites and contribute to strategy discussion, she also worked with the business development team to identify companies that might be suitable for StartUp Health’s accelerator program.

“As an aspiring doctor, I want to help people in all the ways that I can,” Ghosh said. “Through this internship, I learned that health entrepreneurship is a way for me to incorporate new technologies into my future practice.”

She said that she appreciated the insight into the business side of medicine, and she’s considering expanding her goals to pursue an MBA in addition to a medical degree.

“We love that the Workforce Innovation Program gives students opportunities to experience a variety of working environments,” said Lauren Schafer, director of admissions and ventures at StartUp Health and manager of the company’s intern fellowship program. “Experience is power and sets them up for a successful future.”

Alex Casas.

Alex Casas, a UC Santa Cruz senior studying technology and information management, interned with research scientist Kenny Higa’s group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where Higa and team work to understand how the many decisions involved in manufacturing a battery electrode ultimately influence the performance of the final product.

There, Casas helped to test a new approach to analyzing the chemical components used to construct batteries and then explored how a microscope could be efficiently integrated into a planned workflow, in an effort to assist the team in optimizing their experimental processes. 

CITRIS Workforce Innovation interns often encounter novel research, processes and technologies over the course of their placements, meaning their learning curves are occasionally steep. However, some students reported finding this fish-out-of-water feeling to be rewarding,  acknowledging the opportunity to pick up and practice skills that are essential for navigating the workplace.

“I learned the importance of patience,” said Casas, “because you never know if it will take two minutes or five hours to get the results that you want in the lab. 

“Having the willingness to keep an open mind and ask questions was also important, because I didn’t have chemical engineering experience. My co-workers were super, super helpful.”

Higa noted that, with an intern in the lab, the opportunity to learn went both ways. 

“More experienced employees can learn to be better managers by practicing mentoring skills, particularly with newer colleagues that are just about to enter the workforce,” he said.

Christopher Rodriguez.

Patience and an openness to asking for help also served Christopher Rodriguez well in his internship at the UC Merced Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation (MESA) Lab led by mechanical engineering professor YangQuan Chen. A fourth-year student majoring in environmental engineering at UC Merced, Rodriguez helped build a data logger aboard an uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, to detect carbon dioxide in hard-to-reach areas.

Though new to this particular realm of engineering, Rodriguez found it gratifying to connect with his supervisors and exchange resources with his fellow intern. He also said that the Workforce Innovation Program’s speaker series was instrumental to him feeling more secure about the job search process.

“Before I got this CITRIS internship, I was pretty nervous about job searching. I’d talked to students who recently graduated, and they shared how difficult it is to find jobs nowadays,” he said. “The speakers talking about their experiences brought me more insight into what fields I could branch out to.”

Getting hands-on experience with ‘cutting-edge’ tech 

Gaining a first-hand understanding of the daily operations of a busy laboratory was something that Htet Myat, who graduated in the spring with a computer engineering degree from UC Davis, found incredibly valuable from his internship with the UC Davis Integrated Nanodevices and Nanosystems (Inano) Research Lab led by electrical and computer engineer Saif Islam. With the guidance of doctoral student Ahasan Ahamed, Myat helped develop a machine learning model to predict spectrum values for a miniaturized spectrometer that can fit on a computer chip.

Htet Myat.

Spectrometers analyze how the various wavelengths of light interact with a sample of a given substance to determine its chemical composition. However, according to Ahamed, a traditional spectrometer can be bulky, with a sensor area of approximately 50 square centimeters — nearly 8 square inches. 

The light sensor on an on-chip spectrometer, on the other hand, takes up approximately 200 square micrometers — about the cut area of a human hair — and can be used for a variety of biomedical applications, including cancer detection, as well as in agricultural settings, astronomy, food science and more. 

While the tiny sensor of a spectrometer-on-a-chip makes it versatile and inexpensive, its size also presents challenges.

“Htet was a quick learner,” said Ahamed. “We were having trouble with measurement errors that deteriorated the accuracy of our data. Htet took on the challenge and developed a fully connected neural network that could successfully reconstruct the spectrum.” 

He described Myat’s contribution as a “great leap” toward the project’s completion.

“Being able to join a group with researchers working on cutting-edge technology, doing something new all the time, was a really cool experience,” said Myat.

Sukhman Kahlon.

Sukhman Kahlon, a third-year electrical engineering major at UC Davis, was matched for an internship with Silicon Catalyst, an incubator-accelerator that focuses on companies in the semiconductor industry. In her placement with Siloxit, a startup that manufactures and supports  infrastructure monitoring systems enabled with the Internet of Things (IoT), she worked under the direction of CEO Harry Peterson to integrate artificial intelligence into a sensor network.

Kahlon applied to CITRIS Workforce Innovation at the encouragement of a friend who was in the 2022 cohort. As this is her first internship, the program was pivotal in helping her build her resume, establish a professional network and polish her communications skills.

“My supervisor told me, ‘Don’t spend all your time just watching training videos,'” Kahlon said. “He wanted me to be very hands-on with the materials he gave me, and he wants to publish the results of our research.

“I got very lucky with CITRIS.”

The CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program expects to match up to 100 UC students per year with paid internships through 2026. Staff will also track the careers of the program’s alumni to evaluate its long-term impact on their careers and to demonstrate return on the state’s investment over time. 

“We are grateful for the funding from the state of California that allows us to amplify opportunities for UC students and ultimately return social and economic impact to the state,” said Camille Crittenden, CITRIS’s executive director. “The students are inspiring in their willingness to embrace unfamiliar learning environments and advance their ability to solve big societal challenges. 

“It’s an honor to watch them grow over the course of the summer and develop lasting skills that will serve them well in their future careers.”