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J&J Internship Supports Diverse Talents in STEM

Nov 12 2018 | By Jesse Adams | Photo credit: Timothy Lee Photographers

For many women on their way to becoming professional engineers, learning how to navigate career trajectories can be a powerful early lesson.

With interests ranging from cancer treatments to climate change, a select group of young Columbia engineers recently got to explore their chosen industries thanks to a Johnson & Johnson-sponsored internship program designed to support diverse talent in STEM fields.

“It was a great way to get a taste of what it’s like to be a full-time researcher,” said Paulina Babiak ‘19, a chemical engineer who studied direct intracellular transport of proteins in Professor Allie Obermeyer’s lab, a project with implications for therapeutics including cancer treatment.

Launched last year, the now-annual J&J Scholars program offers generous stipends to undergraduate women nominated by faculty to work full-time on campus over the summer in a faculty lab or on a mentored research project. This year, the recipients included fourteen biomedical, chemical, electrical, environmental, and mechanical engineers.

In addition to their research, the scholars enjoyed two site visits to J&J facilities in New Brunswick, New Jersey and an array of panels and seminars with accomplished female engineers from academia and industry, as well as faculty talks and New York City excursions in the Summer@SEAS program. Incorporating ample occasions to meet with mentors and industry leaders, the program offered in-depth insights into potential career paths—and helped build networks for ongoing career support.

Maya Bhat '19, left, was among the 14 biomedical, chemical, electrical, environmental, and mechanical engineers chosen as this year's J&J Scholars.

We got to really look into what actual industry is and what the opportunities are

Janice Chung '19

“It was really valuable to hear from women executives at a large company in a male-dominated field,” said chemical engineer Maya Bhat ’19, who worked with Professor Daniel Esposito on zinc-mediated electrolyzers and batteries that could lead to efficient low-cost energy storage for commercial use. “We women often sell ourselves short on the things we want to do.”

“We got to really look into what actual industry is and what the opportunities are,” said biomedical engineer Janice Chung ’19, who was part of a project under Professor Sam Sia investigating new ways of using microfluidics for rapid point-of-care detection of cancer.

The program is one more factor contributing to Columbia Engineering’s exceptional progress bringing more female talent into STEM fields: women now make up an unprecedented 44% of current undergraduates and 49% of the class of 2022.

As part of the School’s summer research symposium held each fall, the J&J scholars shared their work with peers, faculty, colleagues, and mentors, presenting alongside fellow Columbia undergrads who spent the summer conducting cutting-edge research on campus and as far afield as NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Also at the symposium October 4 were 16 Engineering the Next Generation Scholars, local high school students who completed a six-week research program in collaboration with Columbia.

For Babiak, who works at the interface of chemical and biomedical engineering, the big takeaway was a sense that the sky’s the limit. She wasn’t alone.

“I’d already been thinking about getting my master’s in environmental engineering,” said Dongyi Wang ’20, who spent the summer under Professor Alissa Park exploring how to exploit mineral carbonation to better remove CO2 from the atmosphere. “Why not get my PhD?”