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Gates Foundation Intern, Amanda Song, on the importance of internships

Amanda Song: Junior Consultant at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

“The dream that I’ve set for myself is constantly evolving,” says Amanda Song, a recent graduate from UC San Diego’s doctoral program in Cognitive Neuroscience. She’s gone from an undergraduate, enamored of neuroscience, to an itinerant electrophysiologist studying the secrets of sensory processing in labs based in Belgium and Japan. For her graduate work, she approached the visual system from a completely different angle, using computational techniques such as machine learning to map how humans perceive faces. Now, after spending several years working in internships at technology companies, consultancies, and financial institutions, Amanda is eager to start a new career as a data scientist and consultant at the firm KPMG.

For Amanda’s doctoral research she measured the initial impression that her subjects had when they saw an unfamiliar face.  Is that face trustworthy?  Does it belong to a friend or a foe?  According to Amanda, these impressions form within milliseconds, and revolve around two major dimensions: what is the intention of this unfamiliar person and how capable are they of achieving that intention?  She then trained an algorithm to map traits of the unfamiliar faces to these dimensions, allowing her to determine what aspects of each face contribute most to her participants’ subjective impressions.  Amanda thinks there are a number of commercial applications for this work–for example, she muses about making a company which would tell someone which of their pictures would make the best profile picture on different social media platforms (e.g. Facebook or LinkedIn).

Exploring Life Outside Academia

While pursuing her doctorate, Amanda also explored the world outside of academia.  She pursued internships at a number of technology corporations including telecommunications giant Qualcomm, self-driving truck company TuSimple, and Elon Musk’s electric vehicle company Tesla.  Later, she applied for an internship with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an international development organization, and used that opportunity to learn more about the world of finance.  

If you don’t know something’s out there, you won’t think about searching for it.

Amanda Song

According to Amanda, internships for PhD students come in a number of different forms.  Some fellowships (such as work at Google Brain or DeepMind) are purely to conduct scientific research using the student’s expertise and the resources available at the company.  Other internships (like Amanda’s work at Tesla, where she helped to design a quality control system which could detect when cars were assembled properly) are more production based; they require more training and involve the completion of a task which relates to the company’s output.  Finally, internships can also be recruiting tools; they can be used to introduce graduate students to a company’s culture and provide necessary training which would be useful if the students return after completing their degrees.  

While these internships have tangible benefits for the companies offering them, Amanda thinks of them as crucial opportunities that graduate students can exploit to expand their horizons.  “If you don’t know something’s out there,” she says, “you won’t think about searching for it.”

After spending her PhD working in so many diverse settings, what do the next six years hold for Amanda?  What does she want to do with the rest of her career?  “I think I’ll take this opportunity to see what industries have the most potential, and where I can add the most value” she says, “and then I’ll take it from there.”

Amanda’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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