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How She Balanced Her STEM Experience with Her Interest in Communications

What do you do when you realize that scientific research may not be for you? Priya Lingutla shares how she found a job that allowed her to balance her interest in writing with her experience in STEM, and how she’s thinking about applying it full time in jobs in different sectors next year. Priya also speaks to the importance of not pigeonholing yourself in internships you don’t enjoy to give yourself the time to find the right path for you!

Name: Priya Lingutla

Job Title: Science Writing Intern at Argonne National Laboratory

Location: Lemont, IL

College: University of Chicago

Year: 4th year

Major: Astrophysics

What are you doing this summer?

I was a science writer for the Mathematics and Computer Science division, so I met with over 30+ researchers and interviewed them about their research! I wrote 8 science articles about certain projects ranging from bioenergy in a climate model to an open-source sensor software that’s revolutionizing the way environmental data can be recorded.

I was lucky enough to have the flexibility to choose which articles I wanted to pursue, and ended up writing feature pieces about accomplished emeritus professors on the side as well!

Priya making the most of her vacation.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I wanted to get my physics Ph.D. up until 3-4 months ago, and then I realized that academia wasn’t for me and neither was something more applied-science like engineering. It took me a while to realize that my physics path didn’t have to end with a Ph.D. and just working in research.

I hope to eventually work in executive management in the social-impact non-profit sector, and I’ve been considering working at a startup or non-profit right out of college. I’ve also been considering consulting at an aerospace and defense firm because I’ve been in the field for so long, and would love to find an opportunity to stay!

While applying to jobs this past summer, I thought a lot about what kind of work I wanted to pursue and how much it payed and what other people would think of it. But what it really boiled down to at the end was that I really wanted a job where I could help people and improve upon management skills!

While none of this is remotely related to astrophysics, I believe all of the problem-solving skills and ability to deal with abstract complexities (and programming skills) that I gained from physics will serve me well in whichever field I end up in!

Priya also balanced her internship with studying for the GMAT.

How did you get your internship?

I took a class (which was my absolute favorite class at the university!) my 3rd year fall quarter called the Nuclear Age, and we had a field trip to Argonne and learned about how it played a huge part in nuclear research pre and during WW1. I also visited the lab my first year with the Society of Physics Students and loved exploring their campus.

So when I found the intern posting on Handshake, UChicago’s job board, I knew I had to take the opportunity! Argonne’s actually ‘owned’ by a corporation called Argonne UChicago LLC. so there’s huge ties with the University and 70% of the faculty there are affiliated/employed by the University as research staff or professors. The process for UChicago students is relatively simpler than applying from a different University.

Priya’s ride from work, from the lab to Student Housing, takes her through a forest.

What do you wish you had known during your internship search?

You don’t have to pursue research just because you’re a STEM major! Academia isn’t the only route, and there’s never a fixed path that you’re bound to. You can be a STEM major who’s interested in the non-profit sector, being a writer, startups, anything! You only have 3 summers to help you decide what peaks your interest and what you absolutely hate doing, so don’t limit yourself to one kind of internship or opportunity.

What does a day in the life look like?

I woke up at 7AM because they had speakers that rang through student housing every single day. It even rang on weekends! The interns without cars relied on the shuttles that picked up at 8:10AM from intern housing. I’d be at my building’s cafe by 8:20AM and the shuttle would be pick me up again at 5PM. My building is about a 30 minute walk from intern housing, so campus isn’t entirely accessible without a car.

My work was flexible as well, my team was wonderful and always prioritized learning and experiences over treating my internship like a desk job. A typical day in the internship would include a couple interviews or phone-call with researchers, a lot of writing and switching back and forth from articles so that I’m not at a standstill, and a meeting with my supervisor or the head writer in the department to brainstorm or even just to catch-up.

Meeting researchers was the best part of my day, and I got to know several professors and researchers and learned more about their paths and why they love what they do. I ended writing a couple of feature pieces for fun about some researchers that had incredible career paths! 

For example, I interviewed Larry Wos, an 88 year-old blind mathematician who pioneered the entire field of automated reasoning. Talking to him, and several researchers like him, was a humbling and unique experience. He lives near the University campus, and he even invited me over for tea with him and his wife! I ended up writing an entire piece just about him.

I’d end most work days by going to the gym on campus and then taking the scenic route back to housing, there are a couple short hiking trails in Argonne itself because it’s surrounded by a forest preserve! There were a lot of organized intern activities and even when there weren’t, my roommates and I would always hang out, either by just watching a movie together in the living room or by going out to explore Chicago.

Priya and her roommate, in their dorm room. 

How has this job changed what you see yourself doing in the future?

I love writing, and as a huge advocate for science communication, I couldn’t have asked for a more ideal internship. It showed me the possibilities that exist within my reach as an astrophysics major, and that I’m not confined to any career boundaries or restrictions!

Having researched in a biophysics laboratory in the past, I recognized early on the importance of effective science communication as invaluable; conveying the complexities within a specific field simply is a difficult task. But actually working as a science writer showed me that it’s even more difficult than I thought – the thousands and thousands of words write, the intricacy of the research, and the sensitivity of the subject matter were just some of the many factors I needed to consider before submitting articles for editing.

Speaking to Argonne National Laboratory specifically, I appreciated the work-life balance that comes with a national laboratory, the possibilities of careers it holds within it, and the diverse faculty that guided me to success this summer. Effective communication is one of the primary skill sets required in all lines of work, and it can rarely be taught in a classroom. Working among my team of science writers and communicators was a truly incredible experience, and getting to know researchers past just their research has been the highlight of my summer!

Priya’s final presentation at the Argonne Summer Research Symposium.

Want to learn more about Priya? She was a special guest on Ask Get This Girl a Job where she spoke about the importance of supporting women and how conferences can play a role in networking. Check out the episode here!

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