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Interning from an IBM Research Lab and Home

After hearing from fellow PhD students about their internship experiences, I was keen to learn for myself how research differs when driven by business clients in a large corporate company versus in a university setting. I was also looking for the opportunity to develop my technical skills and learn the best computing practices in industry.

I discovered the IBM Research internship on twitter and applied as it offered everything I was looking for! The project seemed a perfect fit, a combination of my current research in epidemiology whilst giving me the opportunity to develop my programming and HPC skills plus learn how to handle big data. It was also perfect timing, after coming to the end of a project in my own PhD work, I could easily pause and come back to the PhD with new perspectives and re-found drive.

After also discovering that I would be based in North-West England, I was looking forward to finally leaving Warwickshire, where I was brought up and have been based for both my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. As it happens, I spent the majority of my internship at home and away from Daresbury but nevertheless I still thoroughly enjoyed my internship experience and even with the covid-19 lockdown, I still felt as if I was in the Hartree Centre, Daresbury (where the IBM Research Lab is based) surrounded by colleagues.

On arrival, I met the 5 other interns and we started our IBM lives with a week of training which covered the basics in programming, git, bash and using IBM’s computers. This helped us all to settle quickly into the new team and feel welcomed. After that we had everything we required to succeed in the internship and the research began! I was initially surprised how similar the IBM research was to academia, everyone here was willing to discuss work, collaborate and help move the project forward, creating a fast-paced environment.

We had an unusual internship experience due to the covid-19 pandemic. Although there was a slight disruption to our newly adopted routine, we readjusted, and the internship continued with no hiccups from the comfort of our own homes. Below is a typical day comparing interning from the Hartree Centre to interning from home. I was impressed by the ease and professionalism of the transition to working from home and I found my workday wasn’t affected. Even though I was 125 miles away, I felt equally connected and supported by the IBM team.

8:30

Arrived at the Hartree Centre. Said hello to everyone in the office. Should I wake up yet? Roll a metre to my desk.
9:00 Meet the other interns in the AWL for a coffee and free healthy snack. Catch up, before going back to the office and make a plan for the day Get my partner to bring me coffee and cereal. Mark myself as active on slack. Check messages I might’ve missed and make a plan for the day.

10:00

Have a meeting with my supervisor and call our collaborators from the IBM Africa team.

Present my results and discuss the future of my project.

Have a WebEx call with my supervisor and the IBM Africa team.

Discuss my ideas and the future for the project.

11:00 Continue working, chat to people in the office – it’s a very diverse team from AI to data science, exposing me to lots of new science. Have a WebEx call with everyone in the data science team. Everyone checks in and is welcomed to talk about their work or any challenges they are having. Or join the Tea Break call and say hi to everyone.
12:00 Lunch time! Go for lunch with everyone, eat in the canteen with sunshine reflecting on the canal. If I’m lucky it’s fish and chip Friday. Lunch time! Usually Heinz tomato soup and an informal WebEx chat to the other interns.
13:00 Attend an external speaker seminar. Attend the Global Environmental Sciences Seminar via WebEx.
14:00 Chat with my supervisor about ideas raised in the morning call. Check in with my supervisor on slack and discuss what should be the focus of our work.
15:00-17:00 Continue working on my project. Tasks included pulling climate data down from servers to running and parallelising the model on the HPCs. Continue working on my project. Tasks included validating results to writing a docker container for the pipeline.
17:00 End of the day! Off to the climbing centre with IBM colleagues, followed by pizza in town. End of the day! Off for my daily allocated exercise.

I was nervous to work from home, worrying that it would significantly impact my research and motivation. I found the collaborative environment at IBM was especially important to minimise these worries. In my work I collaborated with people at The Weather Company (TWC) utilising climate datasets to forecast malaria incidence in sub-Saharan Africa. This work has strong links with IBM Research Africa group, who develop tools for comparing malaria predictions and I frequently called them to discuss the implementation and workflows of my work. In addition to gaining research experience, this work gave me an insight on how research is developed from a concept to a use-case to being incorporated into a platform for clients.

At the end of the internship, we each presented what we had been working on over the past 3 months and despite the distance between us, we still received questions and engagement from across the team. I’ve really enjoyed my time at IBM, the internship has gone past really quickly and I will miss the team and work. I’m pleased with what I have achieved in the 3 months and I am very excited that my results will be the first use-case for IBM Research’s further research into the impact of climate change. This experience will influence the way I approach research, and I am now considering a research career in industry over academia. I would highly recommend interning at IBM to other PhD students.

by Emma

Emma Southall is a second year PhD at MathSys. She paused her PhD between February-April 2020 in order to complete an internship at IBM Research UK.

Taken at IBM Daresbury

AWL, IBM Daresbury

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