Week 1: Cicadas, Calendars, and Communications

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Sunday, June 6, 2021


Casey Roepke

Did you know that every seventeen years, cicadas descend en masse across the Eastern U.S., bringing with them a sound akin to a high-pitched buzz the volume of a moving train? Well, as a lifelong resident of San Francisco, California, I didn’t know this, but 2021’s cicada summer was the topic of conversation during my onboarding meeting at NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

Initially, I had been a bit nervous (and a bit sad) about interning remotely — would I connect with my mentors and other members of the team? Would I feel isolated, working alone on my computer 3000 miles away from my internship site? But my first day as an AIP Mather Public Policy intern caused these questions and worries to quickly evaporate; not only did I feel instantly welcome and at home with my NIST colleagues, but they also took care to explain to me the nuisance of the swarms of insects currently plaguing Maryland. They even sent me audio recordings of the cicadas outside their homes, which I’ve taken to playing during working hours for the bona fide Maryland summer experience. Just kidding.

Staying on theme, my first week of this internship has, at times, felt like my head was full of buzzing bugs. The 2021 SPS intern cohort started out the program with an orientation on Tuesday morning, bright and early at 8 a.m. Pacific Time. Am I just a little worried about being three hours behind out on the West Coast? Nah — I rowed crew in college. I’m used to waking up before dawn. Luckily, 8 a.m. wasn’t too bad, and any last vestiges of sleepiness made way for pure excitement. With a mix of inspirational remarks (“As of today, you are a working physicist,” said Jack Hehn, the previous director of SPS. “AIP sees you as the future of physics.”) and goofiness (Brad Conrad, the current director of SPS, passed down advice to “never take yourself too seriously” while wearing a reddish-pink bucket hat), we were brought into the internship program and introduced to our fellow interns. Despite being conducted over Zoom, the orientation was engaging and interactive, and we even played virtual Pictionary. My deepest apologies go out to my competitors: I’m a terrible artist. No one was able to accurately guess even one of my drawings.

Next came the cicada meeting — and by that, I mean that I met my mentor, Lisa Jean Fronczek, and the rest of her office. I was so excited to hear about the projects they were working on in our all-office meeting, but I have to admit, I had Google open on the side so I could search the meanings of new terms and phrases they were referencing. The government sure loves a good acronym!

I also started on my first project, which was updating the Manufacturing USA Wikipedia page. Manufacturing USA is a network of institutes which promote advanced manufacturing technologies and competition across the U.S. Reading through institute websites and other context helped me better understand the mission of the office, which will be helpful as I continue to adjust into my new working environment!

During the rest of the week, I attended lots of meetings, training sessions, and webinars. On Thursday, the SPS intern cohort had a Meet & Greet with Dr. David Helfand, a Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University and the AIP Board Chair. I was excited to hear his insights on topics that I am passionate about, including physics, policy, and science communication. Over the last year, the pandemic has emphasized the importance of science to the broader community. From David’s perspective, we can learn from the pandemic about how to better communicate science to non-scientists. We learned that most people’s concerns are local, not global, which means we can evolve our messaging to focus on the present and on local communities. He left us with the advice that climate change is fundamentally a political problem, and as scientists and physicists, we can and should get involved in the political process. I’m super interested in science policy, so this was an affirming and inspiring note to end on!

The end of my week was mostly taken up by technical troubleshooting — it took me a while to get set up in the NIST internal system, and once I was in it took a while to adjust to using Microsoft Outlook and Teams (I tried to copy a scheduled event from my mentor’s calendar and instead accidentally sent a new calendar invite to everyone on the original guest list — so embarrassing!). I also had the opportunity to join Zara, our Communications Director, for a meeting about a writing project. I learned about her experience with science communications, which seemed fitting given the Meet & Greet with Dr. David Helfand the day before.

Whew! My first week (er, four days) felt like a whirlwind, so by Friday night I was totally ready for a chill evening with the rest of the intern cohort as we tuned in for our first Bad Physics Movie Night. “Ant-Man” definitely fit the bill on the “Bad Physics” part, but it was funny to laugh about the incredibly wrong particle physics and point out every misuse of the term “quantum.” Plus, I learned that I wasn’t the only intern to have made an accidental Outlook calendar bluff this week. Commiseration and community!

I’m excited to delve deeper into some projects next week, but for now, I’ll listen to this cicada recording again and buzz off.


Casey Roepke (she/her)