University of Massachusetts Amherst

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How to Get Your First Professional Internship

Bryanna Dague

Sophomore chemical engineering major Bryanna Dague is the exception which disproves the rule that all engineering majors must be grinds who do nothing but study. In fact, Bry literally recycled her cycling hobby into a professional internship at Sensata Technologies when she was only a freshman. During a long cycling trek around her Norton, Massachusetts, home, she began chatting about a possible internship with one of her workout partners, who happened to run the chemistry lab at Sensata. One thing led to another, and Bry earned more first-hand engineering experience by the end of her first year than many undergrads get during all their days in college.

“This is the perfect illustration of ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,’” Bry recalls. With that goal in mind, her job-hunting strategy is simple. Study hard. Organize your schedule to get the most out of your time. Attend college job recruiting fairs. And pursue a range of healthy activities to build a network of professional contacts.

Sometime after that discussion with the head of Sensata’s chemistry lab, the company sent several of its employees to one of the regular career fairs run by the College of Engineering to provide internships and fulltime working opportunities for its students. As luck would have it, one of those employees also hailed from the small world of Bry’s cycling partners.

So at the career fair she approached her contact at Sensata, made a case for why she would be helpful in the chemistry lab, and presented her resume. She was soon taken on board for the summer.

Sensata, which basically produces automotive parts, also has a chemistry lab on campus, so the engineers that work in the corporate building can send their parts there for analyses, stress tests, scans, and other trials. “I helped out with the chemical analysis of different parts,” Bry explains. “So then the engineers could take our results and use them in their designing and production to make better products for Sensata customers.”

One example was a group of pressure sensors coming to the lab corrupted by leaking fluid that was preventing them from working properly.

“This was a really big problem,” says Bry. “It was an oily fluid that had leaked from an undisclosed container somewhere and prevented the sensors from working. So, of course, the engineers had to be certain exactly what fluid this was so they could trace the source of the leakage.”

Accordingly, Bry helped with special testing of the fluid in a Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy machine (FT-IR).

“We would run the fluid through the FT-IR,” says Bry, “and we generate a spectra which we then run through a digital library database that compares the peaks from the sample to known substances, giving us information about possible matches. With that information, we could then report to the engineers, for example, that, yes, there is a 90 percent chance this is silicon oil. After that, engineers could proceed with how they wanted to adjust their part to close the leak.”

Another example of her internship duties was to study certain plastic parts to make certain the plastic was fully crystallized. If not, it could result in cracks in some of the parts. The plastic is only fully crystallized when the curing process reaches a certain temperature, and if not, it will create a weaker plastic.

“So we would take one of these plastic parts and cut off a tiny little piece,” notes Bry. “Say 5 to 10 milligrams. Then I would take this piece and put it in an aluminum dish and then set that dish in a DSC, which is a differential scanning calorimeter. We can determine whether the plastic has been fully cured by studying the peaks generated by the DSC.”

Her team in the chemistry lab would typically get a random sampling from each lot of these particular plastic parts and test them in the DSC, which would prove whether all or part of the lot was made from inferior plastic.  

Another of Bry’s endeavors had to do with “extreme thermal shock,” which, contrary to what you might assume, had nothing to do with a cyclist suffering from overheating and dehydration during a 100-mile summer workout.

At Sensata, she explains, the company manufactures a host of automotive parts that go under the hood, where there are often extreme temperatures. The lab would often test these parts for thermal breakdowns by repeatedly heating them up and cooling them down.

“But that process is time consuming,” observes Bry. “So the chemistry lab developed this method for inducing extreme thermal shock. We take liquid nitrogen, we dump the plastic or metal part in that. We let it sit for a few minutes, then we put it in boiling water. So almost immediately we create this 300 Centigrade difference in the temperature. This new technique, repeated many times, drastically reduces the time we have to subject the part to thermal testing.”

Then the lab could efficiently examine the tested parts for cracks or micro-cracks and report their results to the engineers. As Bry summed up the ultimate purpose of her job, “In effect, our lab served as a proving grounds for the automotive parts.”

Meanwhile, because of her internship at such an early age, she already knows from first-hand experience how a lot of chemical processes are put to work in the field before she has even studied the theory in her engineering coursework.

“Now I’ll be excited to fill in my knowledge and study that theory,” she says. “Basically, I got to apply my education even before I’ve received it.”

Does that mean she won’t have time for her outside interests? No way! Besides being a cyclist, she is also an accomplished Irish Step Dancer and teacher, and she has also earned her Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. Her experience proves a brand new adage: Who you know will often accelerate what you know! (September 2014)