Students earn prestigious research internships at MIT, IBM

By Marie Veillette

Colleges with low acceptance rates and highly held reputations are the stuff many prospective students’ dreams are made of. While a great number apply only to be rejected, others never send in an application, figuring they won’t have the standout resume to claim a spot.

Two MSUM students facing similar situations pushed aside their uncertainties and applied for prestigious internships last summer; both were accepted.

Loza Tadesse, chemistry sophomore, and Iwnetim Abate, physics senior, spent hours searching and applying for internships last year. Both said they chose a mixture of possibilities, some more competitive and desirable and others more attainable.

All their hard work paid off, as both were accepted by their top choices. Tadesse spent 10 weeks researching at MIT, while Abate worked for 12 weeks in the corporate world at IBM.

Tadesse’s program had an acceptance rate of only 10 percent, making her one of only 38 students invited to Massachusetts to study and research. The internship included all expenses paid as well as a $3,500 stipend.

While at the university, Tadesse studied lithium air batteries. These next -generation batteries are designed to be used in electric cars, but their current power is only a fraction of their potential.

The specific type of lithium battery she studied was more “bio-inspired” than others, she said.

“What makes the lab that I worked with unique was they were trying to develop the batteries using a virus,” Tadesse said.

The battery is made entirely on a lab table, as the virus helps to assemble the parts.

Though there has not been a large enough battery of this type created to power a car, it has been able to power lamps and other small appliances. Tadesse’s research was successful, and she and her advisor plan to publish their results.

Abate’s internship was highly competitive as well; he was chosen out of 200 applicants for a single position.

“It’s very competitive to get there because they pay you a lot and treat you very well,” Abate said.

Also studying lithium air batteries,  Abate focused on finding the best combination of materials and chemicals to produce the most effective battery.

“If you want a good battery, you want it to have high efficiency, and also you want it to charge very fast,” Abate said. He added there is a trade off between the two factors; the faster the battery charges, the less powerful it will be.

“My research work was to find materials that would give us high efficiency and also a fast recharge rate,” he said.

Batteries in electric cars are currently only able to power the vehicle for about 100 miles per charge. Abate’s goal was to create a battery that would power a car for 500 miles per charge, compatible to the average distance a diesel-powered engine will run per tank.

After his 10-week program was completed, Abate had two weeks before fall classes began. He asked for an extension to fill the time before school started, and was granted a second internship of sorts.

His final two weeks focused on Africa, specifically the possibilities IBM saw in the gap of technology between the continent and the U.S. and how to fill it. Abate is originally from Ethiopia, so the topic was easy to connect with. 

Though both were surprised they were accepted to the program of their choice, Tadesse and Abate have experience that helped them stand out among applicants.

Each was involved in research with professors at MSUM. Abate had also interned at the California institute of Technology the previous two summers before accepting the IBM position.

Calling their experiences life-changing would not be an overstatement. Both said their future plans changed because of their internships.

Tadesse was originally a physics major when she started as a freshman at MSUM. When she got back to the university the fall after her internship, she had decided to change to chemistry. The opportunity also solidified her interest in research-intensive graduate school programs.

Abate thought he wanted to remain in academics after finishing his degree, and said the internship expanded his career prospects to include industry and business. He added working with energy pointed him to an area of focus within his major.

“Energy is the backbone for everything,” he said. “Everything is energy.”

Though their internships are over, Tadesse and Abate are not finished with the research. Both have plans to present their findings at multiple upcoming conferences.

This Friday, Tadesse and Abate will travel to Arizona for Sigma Xi’s annual international meeting. They will present with 300 students, and compete for prizes.

In late November they will travel to Boston to present at the Materials Research Society’s exhibit.

MSUM students can hear about Tadesse’s and Abate’s research at the Student Academic Conference this April in the CMU.

Most research conferences offer the choice of formally presenting to a room or presenting from a poster. Both said they always choose the latter option because it is more personal.

“That way you can meet a lot of people rather than standing in a room in front of people,” Abate said. “Making that connection at this time will help us in the future.”

Despite the seemly impossible odds, Tadesse and Abate encouraged students to apply to “dream” opportunities.

“When I was applying for summer internships, IBM was my first choice,” Abate said. “I thought I wouldn’t get in because there was only one spot there; it was the only place I got accepted from seven other places.”

“I never thought it would have been possible getting the opportunity to be in that place and to work and actually be successful at what I did,” Tadesse said. “That was the best part of it. You never know where life will lead you.”

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