An intern's view on the STEM industry

College internships are like test-driving a new car. They are a great way to get a first-hand look at a specific company and field and see if the work atmosphere is a good fit for you.

Last academic year, I wrote blog posts about evolutionary biology for the Cartwright Lab at ASU. But over the summer, I had an opportunity to learn more about my undergraduate field of study–biomedical engineering–as an intern at a major medical device company in its R&D engineering department.

I had previously worked in academic research labs so I was looking forward to gaining a better understanding of the differences between academia and industry R&D. In my personal experience, academic research involves the discovery and refinement of new technologies that industry can then further develop and market to customers (which are, in the medical device industry, patients, doctors, and hospitals). They have their obvious differences. Industry employees must focus on the company’s bottom line, legal image, and regulatory requirements, while academic researchers must secure grants; at a company, a well-structured 9-to-5 day is standard, while academia offers more flexibility and freedom. But ultimately, early-stage academic research and industry research and development often go hand-in-hand in creating cutting-edge medical care for patients. I enjoyed both for different reasons - academia for its flexibility, and industry for its organization.

I was also eager to observe the state of the gender gap in the engineering industry. The numbers show that this is a huge problem in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines - in 2011, a mere 25% of STEM employees were women, and of that total, only 13% of engineers were female. Moreover, women in STEM jobs make an average of $75,100, compared to $91,000 for men (according to the Census Bureau). But while the numbers are discouraging, I have hope for the future based on my summer experience. I did observe that a slight majority of engineers I interacted with at the company were men, but I met several women in engineering management positions, and of the group of about 50 interns, nearly half were women. I suspect that the gender gap will continue to shrink and might even disappear in my lifetime, as long as we continue to encourage young girls and women to pursue STEM and have the confidence to compete with their male counterparts in these fields.

So what’s your opinion? Do you have a different experience of academia vs. industry or gender issues in STEM disciplines?

Stay tuned for future posts about the exciting evolutionary biology research going on in the Cartwright Lab.