ATLAS Internship Program Launches Careers, Breaks Records

Thu, 01/26/2023 - 15:33
Megan Phillips

With more than 80 interns on board, the APL Technology Leaders and Scholars (ATLAS) program at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, wrapped up its 23rd summer last year with its largest cohort ever. It’s a positive trend for the competitive internship program for undergrad and graduate students who have an interest in applied scientific research and attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).

Thirty schools across the country were represented within the program last summer. Throughout their 10 weeks at APL, the scholars gained critical thinking and problem-solving experience and participated in professional and leadership development activities.

APL Chief of Staff Erik Johnson has been involved with ATLAS for many years, including when he was an executive in the Lab’s Force Projection Sector. Now, he is mostly involved as an executive advocate, supporting the program and communicating its value.

“Finding talented, creative, dedicated and energetic people who are interested in solving the types of critical challenges we tackle here at APL requires that we look everywhere, not restrict our focus just to certain schools and organizations,” Johnson said. “ATLAS has provided the Laboratory with access to top STEM talent from across the nation. In addition to their talents, our ATLAS candidates bring diverse experiences, backgrounds and creative approaches that enhance our ability to innovate and solve hard problems.”

APL is the first internship experience for many ATLAS participants, so the Lab seeks to set the bar high for their professional career. The interns work on the same challenges that all technical staff members take on for APL’s sponsors. This exposure to their specific area of interest and access to experts in their field is a prime opportunity for students to start envisioning their future, making critical connections and planning immediate next steps.

Foundations for the Future

ATLAS is built on three main pillars. “We emphasize technical excellence, professional development and networking,” said Xiomara Calderón-Colón, chair of the ATLAS committee, a cross-Lab team comprising technical and administrative staff, sector and department representatives and other stakeholders.

Calderón-Colón expressed the value of the program’s mentoring piece. Each student is connected with a mentor who helps them to navigate the summer. This element, she explained, allows students to learn from their mentor’s work, education and APL-specific experiences.

The opportunities interns experience at the Lab are a direct result of the hard work done by APL staff members who believe in ATLAS’ purpose and choose to lead the charge, said Zakia Harris, ATLAS’ finance officer who has served in the program for six years.

“Leadership makes a difference,” said Harris, in a nod to Calderón-Colón’s direction of the program committee. “We had a larger cohort and we did not skip a beat. When you have a great leader and a great team, it’s easier; it is never easy, but it is easier to get things done so you can provide the best experience for the interns.”

A larger cohort, indeed: ATLAS went from 56 interns in 2021 to 85 in 2022.

This program crafts a strategic, early-career hiring pipeline that promotes inclusion of underrepresented minorities in STEM. This supports APL’s commitment to creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive work environment. According to the ATLAS committee, the ATLAS internship program sees many interns move into full-time positions. ATLAS has discerned conversion rates as high as 72.73% (in 2017) of eligible interns accepting full-time roles. According to the most recent data, from 2020, seven of the 16 eligible ATLAS interns converted to full-time employment.

Alberto J. De Jesús can speak to such a successful transition. He was a four-year ATLAS intern and accepted a full-time software engineering position at the Lab in 2020. Today, De Jesús is a prime supporter of the program as an ATLAS committee member. ATLAS originally reached De Jesús while he was attending the University of Puerto Rico – Mayagüez Campus.

“Being in the ATLAS program was my first time coming to the mainland United States,” he said. “So everything was new to me. Everybody, from ATLAS staff to the technical staff at large, did a great job helping me get comfortable with how different things are over here.”

De Jesús is excited to see others benefit from the program that led him to where he is today. Reflecting on his past with ATLAS, he fondly recalled having lunch with APL Director Ralph Semmel, going to see the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft in person before it launched and feeling like a vital part of his Laboratory team — all as an intern. Now he advises ATLAS interns to take advantage of the resources and opportunities APL provides.