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Ph.D. candidate reflects on National Renewable Energy Laboratory internship

NREL intern
Sunil Subedi, a Ph.D. candidate at South Dakota State University, poses outside the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado after completing his seven month internship.

For undergraduate and graduate-level students, internships are often a crucial part of one’s postsecondary education. They provide hands-on learning in a professional setting, the opportunity to apply learned skills, resume building and a plethora of networking opportunities—among many other benefits. 
Sunil Subedi, a Ph.D. candidate at South Dakota State University, recently completed a seven-month internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, where he worked alongside engineers on two projects that help advance the NREL’s core mission: advancing the science and engineering of energy efficiency, sustainable transportation and renewable power technologies. 
The NREL is a Department of Energy-funded property, focused on the research and development of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Established in 1977 under the Jimmy Carter administration as the Solar Energy Research Institute, the NREL works closely with MRIGlobal and Battelle—known as the Alliance for Sustainable Energy—and other private partners. 
“Renewable energy is something that I have been very interested in, so it was great to complete an internship at the prestigious NREL,” Subedi said. 
A native of Nepal, Subedi completed his undergraduate degree at Kathmandu Engineering College before enrolling at SDSU in 2019. Currently, he is working toward a Ph.D. in electric power engineering. 
NREL internship
Last spring, Subedi was browsing LinkedIn looking for an internship. He wanted to find something that fit well with both his current set of skills and the research he had previously done. His adviser, Tim Hansen, an associate professor in the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering, had completed an internship at the NREL while pursuing his own Ph.D., and he suggested Subedi take a look. 
“I also found out that two seniors were working there, so I got some advice from them as well,” Subedi said. “I applied and got hired.” 
Subedi had options: he could either work remotely or in person. He chose to be in person so he could connect with the onsite engineers and network with other interns. In late May, Subedi packed up his things and moved west to Denver—20 minutes away from the NREL’s offices in Golden.
The first week or so of the internship was your basic first-day-on-the-job activities: touring the facilities, filling out paperwork and meeting new people. After the interns were settled, they began their first projects. Subedi’s project explored power system frequency support from home appliances, like refrigerators and washing machines. 
“The concept for the project was somewhat new, but I built on some related topics that I worked on while at SDSU,” Subedi explained. “It was around 60% overlap and 40% new information.”
For Subedi, the project was interesting but not overly challenging. He took it upon himself to seek out some extra work and began working with a different group on a project revolved around 100% renewable energy. 
“I had enough time because the first was not that time consuming, so I took that other project to learn more about 100% renewable energy,” Subedi said. “That’s a hot topic these days.”
The second project was a little more challenging for Subedi as he had to learn new software, but he was able to get up-to-date quickly. The internship ended before he was able to “complete” the project, but it was still a great learning experience that made a big impact, Subedi said. 
As part of his projects, Subedi worked with a mentor, Michael Blonsky, a full-time research engineer at the NREL. Each week, Subedi met with his mentor along with other engineers and interns to go over funding, projects, resources available and future planning. 
“Meeting and working with my mentor and other engineers on a regular basis was very helpful,” Subedi said. “I always had the opportunity to ask question, make sure things thing were right and see what was coming up in the future.
“The work environment was very healthy,” Subedi added. “That was great.”
Subedi and his mentor also represented the NREL at the 2022 Grid Forward Conference in Denver, where they volunteered and participated. The conference brought together a wide range of energy leaders to explore ways to harden the electric grid from disruptions and facilitate a smooth energy transition. 
Working in a new environment with experienced researchers was one of the most important parts of the internship, Subedi said. 
“It was very different but very healthy,” Subedi said. “The learning curve was very steep, but you just focused on the research so it was manageable.”
Subedi also appreciated working with his mentor, who served as a guide to his projects. 
“You are new to everything, but there are engineers that are experts so they will guide you and point you toward other helpful resources,” Subedi explained.
Meeting with the engineers was also helpful because Subedi was able to network with people who had similar research interests. He also expanded his “soft” skills through conversations and meetings. 
“I improved on my soft skills, my technical skills, expanded my knowledge in different fields and got to know people who are working at the NREL, which might be helpful in the future if we are working in the same research area,” Subedi said. “A lot of positive things.”
Subedi said it was also good to connect with four SDSU electrical engineering grads who currently work full time at the NREL: Prateek Munankarmi, Priti Paudyal, Shuva Paul and Kapil Duwadi.
Advice for other students
If other students are looking to land an internship, Subedi has a few pieces of advice:

  • “First, know your career focus or research focus to look for the right kinds of internships. If you don’t know, ask your advisers which area would be good.”
  • “Build up your (curriculum vitae) or resume. Be sure to see if everything is up to date and correct.”
  • “Once you know your career or research focus, use keywords related to those for your job search. Type those keywords into the LinkedIn job portal or a Facebook group that posts jobs or any website like that.”
  • “Read the description of the internship and understand the requirements. Know what the expectations are and what you will be doing.”
  • “Finally, apply. Apply multiple places if you can.”

“All students should try and get an internship,” Subedi said. “It will be a very different experience, but you will grow a lot. I am so glad I did it because I got to learn very different things that I might not have learned if I was only in university.”
“The downside of internships is that you a lose a student’s expertise for an extended period of time,” Hansen said. “We’re really glad to have Sunil back.”
Now that Subedi is back in Brookings, he will resume working on his dissertation, which revolves around the modeling of photovoltaic inverters. 
“This includes making some simulation framework where we can simulate points of inverters with grid support functions,” Subedi said. “In layman’s terms, I’m modeling inverters.”
This summer, he is expected to defend his dissertation. As for his post-college plans, he hopes to remain in the U.S. 
“I’m thinking I want to pursue research for a couple of years,” Subedi said. “Then after that, hopefully I will begin working in the industry.”