SPS Interns – Where are They Now? Part 2

SPS Interns – Where are They Now? Part 2

Celebrating 10 years of Teaching Guides

When I reached out to our former SPS interns to ask them about their experiences with us and their lives now, I received so many more thoughtful responses than I dreamed of. It was so hard to choose just a few responses to feature in the AIP History Newsletter. Luckily, there is plenty of space on Ex Libris Universum to share their responses in full! Here is the second half of the two part series. You can find the first half here.

With thanks again to Cate Ryan, Brean Prefontaine, Emma Goulet, Maura Shapiro, MJ Keller, Samantha Spytek, and Simon Patané. Some of the responses were edited for clarity.

two men and two women sit at a table indoors

From left to right: SPS interns Jacob Zalkind and Simon Patané, and graduate research assistants Sharina Haynes and Serina Hwang Jensen worked on the teaching guides in 2014. Image credit: Greg Good.

What skills or interesting lessons did you learn through the internship?

Simon Patané (2014 SPS Intern): Working with the amazing staff at the Center for History of Physics and my fellow interns was by far the most rewarding part of that summer. I developed a profound appreciation for what it really meant to practice the kind of research necessary to create the teaching guides as well as how those skills and activities reflected the work historians perform daily. Capturing history is vital and [the importance of] supporting this work cannot be understated.

Brean Prefontaine (2015 SPS Intern): Since I was working on lesson plans, I learned a lot more about lesson planning and the needs of teachers. But more importantly, I learned that I really liked working in physics education. The SPS internship was really my first foray into physics education and, it sounds a bit dramatic, it really changed my trajectory. After the SPS internship, I went back to working on my undergraduate degree and got involved in physics education research.

Samantha Spytek (2016 SPS Intern): I learned a lot about how consistency and clarity in resource sharing platforms is integral to those same resources getting utilized. Communication, design, and teamwork were the ultimate tenants that I worked by, and those fundamentals aren’t necessarily taught to people in STEM majors, at least not explicitly, and they really should be.

Catherine Ryan (2019 SPS Intern): I learned to be more confident in my writing. I had always been a confident math and science student, but when it came to any class I had to do extensive writing, that was not the case. My college professors and mentors at the SPS internship were the first people who made me feel more confident in my writing. I developed stronger research skills. I use these research skills almost daily in my job today.

outdoors, table with blue tablecloth, lots of people, at center is a blond woman with glasses gesticulating

Samantha Spytek does physics demonstrations at the Astronomy Festival on the National Mall. Courtesy Samantha Spytek.

Maura Shapiro (2021 SPS Intern): The internship definitely taught me how to research using library materials and tools. I learned a lot about how libraries and archives are run behind the scenes and have a new appreciation every time I check out a book from my public library. I learned to edit and post on Wikipedia, how to write a blog post on Drupal, I even learned how to advocate for my artistic vision with the Which Physicist Are You post.

Emma Goulet (2022 SPS Intern): My internship gave me so many more skills and lessons than I had expected. At the outset, I had never even considered pursuing anything in education; my sights were set on following a career path of astronomy or technical physics. However, the experience broadened my horizons and reshaped my perspective of physics and what it could involve past the technical world.

As I immersed myself in the world of historical research, curating content for the teaching guides on Emilie du Chatelet and Katherine Clerk Maxwell, I discovered a passion for discovering these past lives and science education. It was a revelation. The process of meticulously weaving historical narratives into engaging educational resources was a creative endeavor I hadn't anticipated. This shift from technical physics to educational content opened a new realm of possibilities for my future career, and I loved the challenge of adapting their highly intellectual studies to creating lesson plans for young kids.

Given that I had never done historical research like this, unearthing historical facts was both a learning curve and very exciting to be a researcher discovering new things about these important historical women. The experience of diving into the Niels Bohr Library & Archives was like a crash course in historical research for me. I loved learning to contextualize historical documents and piece together narratives from fragmented sources.

The experience instilled a confidence in me for walking into completely new environments and networking as well! I am not sure that I have ever felt as confident as I did last summer in my job, companions, environment, and in my ability to network (even with figures/mentors that I have idolized in the field).

In essence, my SPS internship not only equipped me with valuable skills but also ignited a newfound passion for education/outreach/history that expanded my horizons. It taught me that the world of physics is far vaster than I had previously believed. This realization has undeniably shaped the trajectory of my academic and career pursuits, opening my mind to so much more fulfilling work that I was not aware existed.

MJ Keller (2023 SPS Intern): I learned a substantial amount of information about copyright law and guidelines, especially what constitutes fair use in an educational setting. My general skill set as a librarian was significantly bolstered, including working with different classification systems and seeking out resources that were unavailable at my own sources. I also learned a little about conservation and preservation that I hadn’t known before!

Seven people standing indoors with festive expressions

Both NBLA/CHP interns Brean Prefontaine and Connor Day had birthdays over the summer. This was taken during Connor’s birthday party (center). Brean is second from the right. Hannah Pell, on the far left, was also an SPS intern at the time and later came back to work for the Center for History of Physics as a Research Assistant. She worked on teaching guides and wrote many wonderful articles for Ex Libris Universum in that role. Credit: Brean Prefontaine.

What are you most proud of accomplishing since your internship?

Simon Patané (2014): I’m most proud of my work in grad school and the past seven years of work in advancing In-space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM) technology development. It’s well beyond where I thought I’d be at this point and I’m eternally grateful.

Brean Prefontaine (2015): I am really proud of the research that I have been able to work on. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I went to graduate school and worked on research related to informal physics education. My dissertation work was focused on understanding physics identity development among undergraduate and graduate students facilitating informal physics programs. Now, I am very proud to be a postdoctoral researcher as a part of the Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing Education and working on research related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in accreditation criteria for computing departments. Throughout all these opportunities, I have been proud to work with exceptional scholars on work that is aiming to create more equitable and diverse STEM environments.

Samantha Spytek (2016): Since my internship, I graduated as one of the valedictorians from my physics program at Virginia Tech, earned my master’s in education and am entering my sixth year of teaching physics in Loudoun County Public Schools. I was awarded the PhysTEC Local Teacher of the Year award in 2022, and every year I have been given an award from at least one student for my teaching that year. I am a very successful teacher in part because of the work and training I got that summer as an SPS intern.

Catherine Ryan (2019): I was a Field Organizer on the Biden Harris 2020 campaign, and I can say I helped win a presidential campaign. I have no shame in saying I was a D.C. intern who caught the politics bug. The persistence and drive I developed as a physics student helped me every day when working 70 hour weeks and trying to talk to people who didn’t always want to be talking to me.

Maura Shapiro (2021): I’m really proud of Initial Conditions: A physics history podcast! It was such a rare and special opportunity to work with Justin, a science historian I really admire, and that we had a lot of creative control and support from everyone. Though we had no prior podcast experience, we learned how to make a show that meant something. It’s been really rewarding to hear which episodes people connect with. Even people in my life who don’t love physics will tell me they identified with certain stories or were moved by certain episodes.

Emma Goulet (2022): Since my internship, one of my proudest achievements has been the active pursuit of my passion for science education and historical research, as well as the personal growth of learning about myself and my passions from living in the city.

I am very happy to say that since my internship, I was thrilled to intern with the National Air and Space Smithsonian doing similar work in STEM diversity outreach. I am proud that I have been able to continue involvement in advocating for and amplifying the contributions of marginalized groups in STEM history. Here, I worked on initiatives that spotlight the often-overlooked stories of women who have shaped the trajectory of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It's a continuation of the work I started during my SPS internship, and it brings me great satisfaction to contribute to recognizing and celebrating these unsung heroes. The SPS internship acted as a catalyst, opening doors to various career opportunities that I hadn't initially envisioned. It introduced me to the rich landscape of science communication, historical research, and education.

On an unrelated note, I have also been able to do a lot of service work and traveling this past year; I could talk about it endlessly and am very proud/grateful to have done it : )

MJ Keller (2023): I’m most proud of the initiative I’ve felt empowered to take upon returning to my university. Over just the beginning of the semester I have been able to reach out to university staff to plan events such as a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, similar to the one I hosted at AIP. In this time I’ve continued to focus on expanding the diversity of voices in the physics and astronomy community, and will be presenting at several conferences this year on both the history of physics research I conducted over the summer and other related work I’ve been able to do since finishing my internship.

Standing on library stairs, three men in foreground and two women in background, further up the stairs

The teaching guides team in 2016. From left to right: then Director of Center for History of Physics Greg Good, SPS interns Victoria DiTomasso and Samantha Spytek, and graduate research assistants Lance Burch and Stephen Neal. Image credit: American Institute of Physics.

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Simon Patané (2014): I’d like to mention one of my fellow interns, Kearns Louis-Jean, who tragically passed several years ago. Kearns had an absolute love of learning and science and was by far one of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever met. I try to keep some of that energy and love alive every day.

Samantha Spytek (2016): I am where I am in part because I was an SPS intern. It truly was a wonderful experience that helped me improve both myself and meet others who could help me along the way. I cannot measure the impact it had on my life, as every year the subsequent benefits only continue to grow.

Catherine Ryan (2019): This internship changed myself and my life in ways I never expected, even before I was an intern. I interviewed for the 2018 cohort and did not get in. But what changed me forever was a question in my interview. An AIP staff member asked me, “What are you proud of?” At the time, I wasn’t doing research, didn’t feel like I was excelling in classes, and was struggling to feel proud or like I had accomplished anything of merit.

I was a sophomore in college and struggled to come up with anything I felt proud of.

Walking away from the interview, I knew I needed to work on my perspective. While I hadn’t checked these boxes that had been presented to me as the perfect physics student to do list, I knew deep down I was still someone who had accomplishments and should feel pride in myself.

I dug deep and recognized that I was a good friend, classmate, roommate, and teammate. Everyday, I got myself out of bed and worked hard. That was all worthy of feeling proud of myself. After this perspective change I became a better student and re-focused myself from fitting this “perfect physics student” model I had been striving to achieve and focused on what I loved to do and pursuing what made me happy.

Maura Shapiro (2021): There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be where I am today (really happy, still working at AIP as a science writer) without the internship. Joanna, Corinne, and Audrey are incredible mentors that taught me so much. NBLA and CHP (AIP History Programs) do incredible work and I feel honored that I was part of it.

I’m getting emotional now… duh. 😊

Emma Goulet (2022): The internship was not just a job, it was one of the best experiences of my life! I previously had no idea how much more fulfilling I would find physics history research and diversity outreach as opposed to technical physics. Outside of the job it also taught me a lot about myself, my passions, and my newfound love of city-life.

MJ Keller (2023): There is nothing more important to the continued expansion of human knowledge than a continued curiosity about our past, and the history of physics, both of the research done and information gained and of the people who conducted the research, is an integral aspect of the future of society. I feel lucky to have been a part of the history of physics community for a summer, and I look forward to joining the future of the field as I continue my career and education.

About the Author

Joanna Behrman

Joanna Behrman

Joanna Behrman was the Assistant Public Historian at the Center for History of Physics (CHP). She holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and specializes in the history of women in physics. At CHP she was in charge of education and outreach projects. One of her favorite works in the collection is Dorothy Weeks’s unpublished memoir.

Caption: Madalyn Avery, Household Physics Laboratory Manual (New York: Macmillan Company, 1940), page 8

See all articles by Joanna Behrman

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You can align images (data-align="center"), but also videos, blockquotes, and so on.
  • You can caption images (data-caption="Text"), but also videos, blockquotes, and so on.
  • You can embed media items (using the <drupal-media> tag).