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A Firsthand Look Inside Internships

AUTHOR: Nina Welding

PUBLISHED: November 6, 2015

Meet Alyssa Varsanik, a native of Rochester, Mich., and fifth-year senior majoring in chemical engineering and piano performance with an engineering corporate practice minor. She's a busy woman, but she was able to take some time to share some valuable information about her internship experiences and her plans for the future.

How would you describe your most recent internship?
This past summer I interned in General Electric’s Power and Water division. For 10 weeks, I lived in Greenville, S.C., home of the world’s largest gas turbine manufacturing plant. As a chemical engineer placed on the CAD/CAM team, I initially felt out of my comfort zone. Although I was unsure of how I was to apply my chemical background to a computer-programming driven department, I was excited for the challenge. Throughout the summer, I juggled a wide range of projects. One of my main projects dealt with updating the data collection process on the manufacturing shop floor. Prior to my internship, data acquisition was a tedious process that required engineers to manually record individual data points into GE’s database. Consequently, I wrote a Matlab script that automatically organized the thousands of data points recorded by the CMMs (coordinate measuring machines) each day. Since the implementation of my script, the measurements from the CMMs are automatically transferred to the database. This coding project was just one small contribution toward GE’s Brilliant Factory, an initiative to optimize manufacturing operations. 

Aside from coding the Matlab script, I explored the world of 3D printing. I designed parts using a software program and printed the completed files using 3D printers. The printed parts were used on the manufacturing shop floor. I worked closely with the operator of the 3D printers, who taught me how to run the million dollar machines. After designing parts on the software, I sent the computerized “sketches” to the printer where the sketches were then printed in 3D. Overall, I learned to troubleshoot the printing process from start to finish.  

The design for the prosthetic Alyssa Varsanik made during her summer internship came from Enabling the Future, a volunteer network dedicated to using 3D printing to providing a helping hand, literally.
Although the 3D printers were generally used for making substitute parts that increased efficiency and lowered costs in the manufacturing plant, I was intrigued with the limitless possibilities of the 3D printers. As I researched 3D printing capabilities on the Internet, I found a design for a mechanical prosthetic. To test the precision of the 3D machines at GE, I uploaded the design to the printers and was amazed that all the pieces could be printed in less than 30 minutes for a relatively cheap cost of materials. Moreover, the small pieces were meticulously printed, and even included fingerprints. I spent the remainder of the summer assembling the plastic pieces using fishing line, elastic, leather, nuts, and bolts.  This project ultimately made me aware of the vast capabilities of 3D printing from enhancing efficiency on the manufacturing floor to the possibility of creating functional mechanical prosthetics.

Were you specifically looking for an internship in the medical devices field?
No, I did not specifically look for an internship in the medical devices field, nor did I expect to explore the scope of 3D printing. My internship with GE taught me how flexibility and creativity are gateways to the vast opportunities that engineering can offer.  

Instead of looking for a specific internship, I researched companies that motivated leaders to be on the cutting edge of innovation. I wanted to work for a company with a solid reputation. I was drawn to GE’s entrepreneurial culture and respect for its customers. Once I started my internship, I realized the culture and respect, adopted by nearly every employee and manufacturing operator, motivated day-to-day activities in the turbine manufacturing plant. I valued the collaborative atmosphere, dedication to progress, and competitive spirit. I appreciated GE’s investment in every employee and GE’s goal to train each engineer to make a difference in the company. Throughout the summer I met different leaders in the company, including the plant manager.  Each leader was an advocate for change and thrived on responsibility.   

During my internship, I especially was intrigued by individual “ownership” of projects. For example, engineers responsible for turbine blade production knew every design detail about the turbine blade, each stage of the blade’s manufacturing process, and how a slight deviation in blade parameters could affect turbine production downstream. The engineers “owned” their specialties and were proud of the work they did to streamline the manufacturing processes. 

Is the medical devices/manufacturing field something you specifically wanted to pursue?
Interning in industry for the past three summers has heightened my appreciation for manufacturing. Brilliant technology, fast-paced schedules, untiring drive for innovation, and precise focus on efficiency are just a few industry highlights that make a future industrial career seem attractive. However, my ultimate goal is to share these industrial highlights with the medical community in order to bridge the gap between engineering and medicine. The medical field offers an opportunity to concomitantly grow as an engineer and physician. My internship experiences taught me about the responsibility to not settle for mediocrity. I want to bring an engineering attitude to the medical field where I can fight for changes that enhance existing models of patient care. 

Have you participated in any other internships?
In 2012 I worked for Strategic Manufacturing Systems, a consulting company for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, where we transformed two-dimensional layouts of manufacturing plants into 3D layouts that calculated costs, machine downtime, queue logistics, and more. In 2013 I worked for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in the Mechanical Engineering department. I became certified in Six Sigma after completing a design project that investigated the robust placement of locator holes on the cradle of the mini van. In 2014 I interned in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Materials Engineering department, where I updated compression-stress relaxation equipment in order to predict end-of-life capabilities of rubber materials. I also helped define a test that could predict durability of interior plastics. 

What do you do in your spare time? Are you involved in any other clubs or groups on campus relating to engineering, faith, or service?

I am the choir director for McGlinn Hall and lead choir rehearsal and the Mass music every Sunday night. I play the piano, but I have an exceptional team consisting of singers, violinists, a violist, a flutist, and percussionists.  I am also the resident assistant on the fourth floor of McGlinn and am lucky to be a part of such a special ministry.   

Two years ago, I was elected as junior engineering class representative, and last year I was the secretary of the Engineering Honors Program. While in these positions, I coordinated CHEG night, an opportunity for chemical engineers to meet recruiters from chemical engineering industries. I invited a wide array of companies including oil/gas companies, consulting firms, biomedical companies, and even companies that had never before recruited at Notre Dame. I recognized that I was not the only student interested in bridging the gap between engineering and medicine, so it was rewarding to share that passion with many of my classmates. 

Do you currently or have you worked in an on-campus lab as a student researcher?
For the past five semesters, I have worked in Professor Glen Niebur’s biomechanical engineering lab at Notre Dame. My research is directly related to patients dealing with osteoporosis and severe bone injuries. I investigate the bone marrow niche and the stimulants that affect bone growth and bone deposition. The goal of my research is to understand the competitive relationship between osteoblast and adipocyte differentiation within the bone marrow niche.

Research has inspired in me a responsibility to serve others. Working in the Tissue Mechanics Laboratory with Professor Niebur has channeled my attention toward enhancing patient care and improving medical practices. My research projects have catalyzed unanswered questions about the bone marrow niche, inevitably fueling my curiosity to explore the unknown. In addition, my projects have shaped my goals to help lead the biomedical revolution and fueled my motivation to bring the benefits of basic research into hospitals. Above all, research has defined my passion to lead in the sciences and actively protect the health of human beings.

What would you say to other students considering an internship? What should they do to prepare for this experience?
It is never too early to start networking. I think passion speaks just as loudly as credentials, so do not be afraid to go after what you’ve “always” wanted to do.  However, don’t be afraid of rejection. Instead learn from these experiences, ask for advice, and constantly try to improve yourself.  

What do you want to do when you graduate from Notre Dame?
I want to go to medical school and open up my own practice. Right now, I am intrigued by surgery and can see myself working closely with a biomedical company in order to help them better the instruments used in practice today.