Lessons Learned from a Summer with the Civil Rights Bureau of the NYAG

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the Career Services Summer Funding grant.  We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending the summer.  You can read the entire series here.

This blog is by Iris Zhang, CAS ’16.

I spent this summer as an economics and statistics intern with the civil rights bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office. As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, I felt incredible nostalgia to be back in a big city, although my personal biases dictate that New York City doesn’t even compare to one-tenth of how amazing Hong Kong is. The civil rights bureau, though, that’s something else. I am a rising junior, and ever since freshman year when I took the Benjamin Frnaklin Seminar, “Race, Crime and Punishment”, with Professor Marie Gottschalk, I became incredibly driven to civil rights issues, in addition to my passion for women’s rights. After spending my freshman summer interning with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in D.C., I became highly aware of the important role numbers play in impacting policy. Discouraged by the political climate in which not much gets done regardless, I was interested in the use of numbers and statistics to make forceful legal arguments – the legal arena, it seems, is a much more effective (though not always more efficient) way of ensuring our rights and liberties through enforcement.

The civil rights bureau was the perfect place for me to test this instinct – I met some of the most passionate and talented attorneys who use their gift for a truly important cause. My role as an economics/statistics intern was to analyze large sets of data to extract meaningful statistics that indicated evidence of discrimination in aid of the bureau’s various legal investigations. I started the summer hoping to find out more how lawyers build numbers and statistics into their arguments, and now that I have tearfully bid farewell to the summer, I have come to a few conclusions about statistics and the law.

1. The application of statistics can be hard!
This is probably because I am neither a lawyer nor a statistician. All of the sets of data that I worked with were completely new to me (and in some cases, new to the attorneys too). The problem with this is I didn’t quite know how and where to start. You have the data, but this might be a new type of litigation or a new type of data, and you go into it not even knowing if there is anything meaningful contained within the numbers. For example, there was a discrimination case we were working on, and we had this data set with well over a million entries in the excel spreadsheet. The investigation had already cycled through 4 or 5 interns. I had never seen that data before or even heard about this type of legal issue. It was a lot of finding my way in the dark, and that in itself pushed me to want to learn more about statistics, because part of the learning process is developing the mindset to see a big body of data and think – okay, what can I find out? The lawyer’s mindset is surprisingly well-adapted to that. They would ask, “do we have information on how many people who were hired are minority applicants?” “Okay, so do we have information on how many people who applied were minority applicants?” “Do we know the demographics of the market pertaining to this job?” These are easy enough questions to ask if you are a lawyer because they are grounded in legal theory, and it was so interesting to churn out numbers for the attorneys to analyze. I was learning – okay, if you want to prove employment discrimination, the law says this – at the same time as I was learning whether the numbers complement that legal theory. But it was hard. Government bureaus don’t have that much money, so they find some 20-year-old hack (me) to try to make sense of the data, and I was really grateful for the experience.

2. Numbers lie
You can’t always trust numbers – they can be easily manipulated. In a discrimination investigation we conducted, we wanted to compare our target to its peers to prove that their discriminatory practices were yielding disparate impact, and statistically significant differences are a good way of supplementing observations. The numbers can lie if you alter what you define as “peer”. If you compare the target to their stronger, bigger competitors, they most certainly will fall short. The target wants to be compared against their weaker, smaller competitors to come out on top. So the question is – which peers do we compare them to? In this case, one really has to peruse the data carefully and base that determination on strong theory. But perhaps the better way to phrase this conclusion is to borrow the catchphrase from the NRA – numbers don’t lie, people do.

3. You can’t rely on numbers too much
Bouncing off the previous thought, if numbers lie, then you really can’t rely on numbers. On top of that, there can also be human error. For example, we had a data set that had total occurrences of a particular incident in 3 years, and also population information for 3 years. Do get the rate per unit of population, you can either use the total occurrences in 3 years divided by the total population in 3 years; or the average occurrences divided by the average population. In my initial analysis, I used the total occurrences divided by the average population, so the rate became way, way inflated. I was so embarrassed when I double-checked the data and noticed my mistake because it seemed so basic, but luckily, despite my frantic explanation, the attorneys didn’t seem to have an idea what I was talking about. This was a silly error, but on a more serious note, the experience solidified what a mentor had once cautioned me about using numbers. She said that numbers can certainly make a point, but numbers can be a convenient way for people to stave off having to make more important moral calculations. Even with no mistakes, on paper, the numbers might make it seem justified to take an action when it might not be the most morally sound idea.

I was extremely grateful to have had this learning experience, and it only served to solidify my interest in the application of statistics in law and social sciences. Without funding from Career Services, however, I would never have been able to afford the exorbitance of New York City.

Designing for a Better Future

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the Career Services Summer Funding grant.  We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending the summer.  You can read the entire series here.

This blog is by Pele Colins, SEAS’ 17 and Steve Rybicki, SEAS ’16.

The company with whom we were offered summer work is called Robohand, which is located in Pretoria, South Africa – not far from Johannesburg. Robohand works out of a large house, as opposed to an office building, called House 4 Hack, an incredible technological innovation center. Doctors (PhDs) and countless intellectuals come to the house every day and work on a number of different projects. Aside from Robohand, these projects include 3D printer development, development of quadcoptors and drones, advanced computer science and software development, etc…

robohandRobohand was created back in 2012 by a South African carpenter and innovator named Richard Van As, who created the idea for the hand after losing a few of his fingers in an accident. What originally began as on opportunity to rebuild his own fingers expanded into a company helping individuals all over the world. In fact, a Robohand product exists in every country around the world, except three!

According to the website’s press page, “Robohand creates 3D printed and aluminum CNC machined, anatomically driven, custom fitted, mechanical devices to help limb different individuals as an alternative to standard prosthetics.” The company’s technology has been able to help finger, hand, and arm amputees as well as individuals born with Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS), a congenital disorder which inhibits the development of the hand and/or fingers. 3D printing technology allows for the prosthetic’s parts to be manufactured incredibly quickly and cheaply; thus, an entire, partially-functional hand can be manufactured in only a few hours and at a fraction of a cost of traditional prosthetics. The functional Robohand prosthesis, when coordinated with the movement of the wrist, allows the individual to grasp and release items such as a ball, cup, pencil, etc. Adults have been able to regain partial use of their lost extremities and limbs; children born with defects have been able to perform actions and pursue goals they otherwise would have found impossible. Robohand is rewriting the futures for children and adults around the world.

In March, we Skype-interviewed with Leonard Nel, the Director of Communications for Robohand. Through our conversation, it was apparent that the Robohand organization would benefit from additional support. Demand for the product is currently exceeding its supply, both in material and manpower to produce the devices. Leonard also indicated that, in addition to printing and fitting Robo-fingers, hands, and arms, we would also be involved in the development of new Robohand technology. The company is in the process of creating a new line of 3D printers, called the RoboBeast. The RoboBeast’s larger, more rugged design allows the technology to be more easily transported to areas of the world where people most need the devices printed. Additionally, in our role with the company, we would be involved in the design and creation of Robohand’s most recently conceptualized products – Robo-feet and legs.

What’s also incredible about Robohand is that their prosthetic designs and computer files are all open-sourced and available for free online. Anyone with the correct software and access to a 3D printer – anywhere in the world – can print and assemble one of these hands. Continue reading “Designing for a Better Future”

Learning Diplomacy at the US Embassy Paris, Press Office

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the Career Services Summer Funding grant.  We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending the summer.  You can read the entire series here.

This blog is by Jacqueline Heinrich, CAS ’15

Just as many International Relations majors, I have always dreamed of working in diplomacy, but I never counted on it becoming a reality. Especially in my area of focus, Europe and primarily France, diplomatic opportunities are very competitive. Regardless, also majoring in French at Penn and having studied abroad in Paris, I aspired to work in France in some capacity. Both dreams of working in diplomacy and in France were realized to their full extent through the State Department internship program

While abroad in Paris last fall, I applied to the State Department for a summer internship, voicing an interest in European affairs and public affairs. I was extremely fortunate to be offered an internship at the Embassy of the United States, Paris in the Press Office. The Press Office has many components and a hand in much of the embassy’s activities, as it is responsible for embassy’s media output and keeping track of the French media. I felt lucky to be a Press Office intern because I was able to be involved in and learn about the Press Office’s many roles and much of the embassy’s activities.

My days were made up of both consistent daily tasks and a changing variety of projects. Every morning I contributed to the Press Office’s daily media summary, which entailed reading France’s major newspapers, then translating and compiling their commentary on pertinent global and domestic issues into a summary that would be sent to other State Department bases.

Every afternoon was different and filled with varied tasks and projects. One of my biggest roles was helping the social media team with the embassy’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. This included outreach, in both French and English, on serious topics like events in the Ukraine and more light-hearted ones such as the World Cup. Learning to use social media as diplomatic tool was eye-opening and made me realize the impact and importance of public diplomacy. I also worked on projects that were more broadly associated with Public Affairs, since the Press Office falls under the Public Affairs section. Of these, I was most involved in Solar Decathlon Europe, part of which entailed organizing a day that showcased American culture, and commemorations for the centennial of World War I, which consisted of researching the US Embassy Paris during that time.

The Press Office is also involved in the media coverage of events and receptions held by the Embassy, so I often assisted, such as by filming or photographing them. Although I was working during them, these were also special opportunities to be in the presence of important invited guests and to experience embassy-hosted events and receptions, such as the embassy’s Fourth of July party.

Extraordinarily, the timing of my internship coincided with the 60th anniversary of D-Day, which brought President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to France. Secretary Kerry also visited Paris another time during my internship to meet with Middle Eastern delegations. My main role during each visit was helping manage the press, but I also witnessed the greater work that went into them. Both visits were extremely exciting to be a part of and gave me a sense for the power of diplomacy, which really moved me. I was truly inspired by the work done by the US Embassy Paris during these exceptional circumstances, in addition to what it does on a daily basis.

My internship was an incredibly valuable experience as it opened my eyes to a career in the Foreign Service as well as other careers that overlap in characteristics. This experience taught what its like to work in a foreign city, to use a different language in the office, to work in communications and with the press, to use social media professionally, to work with the government, and most of all to work in diplomacy. While I loved the combination of all of these things and wish I could continue my internship forever, I now can identify areas in which I would like to work and characteristics of a job that I would like to have in the future. This experience has made me feel much more prepared to embark on finding a career that is impactful and that I am passionate about.

Clean Air for 1.3 Billion New Faces

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the Career Services Summer Funding grant.  We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending the summer.  

This blog is by Guthrie Gintzler, SEAS ’16

I set out looking for an internship for the 2014 summer in pursuit of something close to my home in Pittsburgh. When I received the offer to be an engineering intern at LP Amina in Beijing helping to reduce pollution, I knew I had to leave home behind; the opportunity was too tantalizing to pass by. Having never left the United States before, spending ten weeks working in Beijing seemed daunting at first. For one thing, I didn’t know a single word of Mandarin; I learned “nihao,” hello, on the plane ride to Beijing. I was thrilled to have the chance to gain experience in the energy industry on a global scale all while learning a new language through the free Mandarin lessons my company offered.

LP Amina is a multinational environmental engineering firm that researches NOx reduction solutions and retrofits Chinese coal-fired power plants with these solutions. For those not familiar, NOx, the general term for various nitric oxides, is one of the main chemical compounds that contributes to smog. Beijing has such bad smog that the PM 2.5 index used to measure air quality had to be extended from 500 to 800. The smog has been traced to increased lung cancer rates. LP Amina is a small 100 person company with a culture that shouts change and innovation. This made for a perfect environment to learn about clean and sustainable energy while making meaningful contributions in the pollution reduction efforts in my position as an engineering intern.

Although I am a mechanical engineering major at Penn, LP Amina placed me as a structural engineering intern. This proved to be a challenging position for me as there are a surprising number of differences between the two disciplines. Instead of designing the mechanics behind nozzles and burners, my job was to design the structure to support the ducts drafted by the mechanical engineers. My main project at LP Amina was designing a Secondary Overfire Air (SOFA) duct for the Linyi power plant in the Shandong District. My company flew me out to visit the site. There I received a full technical tour of the power plant, collected old blueprints, and climbed two of the boilers to take measurements and determine the best location for the SOFA ducts. While a power plant retrofit project in the US traditionally takes two years, a similar project in fast-paced China only takes two months. This enabled me to play an active role on all structural engineering aspects of the project, from creating an AutoCAD version of the old blueprints to checking the structural integrity of my design to support the SOFA ducts and creating material lists. I learned a few CAD software programs including Staad.Pro, which was all in Chinese, that I used to verify the structural integrity of my and other engineers’ designs.

Continue reading “Clean Air for 1.3 Billion New Faces”

Wrapping Things Up

by Beckie Stokes, Operations Assistant

intern mugHere we are, knee-deep into August already. Hopefully you’ve been able to spend your summer not only getting some good quality rest and relaxation, but also logging in some awesome internship hours. Since you’ll be wrapping up and heading back to good old Penn soon, here are some things you should remember to do before you bid adieu to your summer employer.

-Ask your boss for honest feedback. You’ve spent the whole summer working and learning new skills, but maybe no one has let you know how you’re doing in the big-picture sense. Now is a great time to schedule a sit-down with your supervisor to see how they viewed your performance, where you can improve, and (hopefully) hear some positive things about your work.

-Talk to and conduct informational interviews with people in your company. You have such great access into a particular industry right now. Don’t pass up the opportunity to pick the brains of people who are actively involved in it. You should do this regardless of whether you loved or hated what you did. If you loved it, great – get some insight into what the real day-to-day of full-time employees is like and what your future might hold. If you ultimately decided that this position or department wasn’t for you, talk to some people outside of the department to see what their work is like – it could be that you still love the industry or company but would ultimately seek a different position.

-Have a talk about your future with the company. Did you love what you did this summer? Awesome! Have a sit-down with your boss to talk about next steps. Some industries make offers at the end of the summer; some tell you they were pleased with your performance and invite you to keep in touch as graduation approaches. Either way, you should take action to make sure they know that you would like to come back if they’ll have you.

-Start making the “goodbye” rounds, but do it before your last day. This is a great time to let your colleagues know how much you’ve appreciated working with them, and chat a bit about your plans for the future. Make sure you have their contact information so you can keep in touch, regardless of your plans to return to the company. This is a great opportunity to expand your network and start nurturing your connections in the field. Starting this process at least a couple of days before you leave ensures that you’ll be able to talk to everyone (heaven forbid your favorite colleague calls out sick on your last day!) and that you’ll have enough time for more than a ten-second “See ya!” on the way out the door.

We hope the end of your internship and the end of your summer are enjoyable and productive. And if you do get that end-of-summer offer and need help negotiating, our door is always open. See you soon, Quakers!