Working with the Wind: Meet GE Summer Intern Kate Boardman

GE Summer Intern Kate Boardman

All summer long, Kate Boardman has worked with the wind.

Boardman, an electrical engineering major at NJIT, is a summer intern at General Electric Wind, part of the company’s renewable energy division headquartered in Schenectady, N.Y. 

Wind is a relatively new engineering field and Boardman is working at the forefront of the field.   GE has more than 5,000, 1.5 megawatt wind turbines in the U.S. on wind farms mostly on the windy plains and deserts of the Midwest and Texas. 

As an intern, she assists a group of GE engineers who remotely monitor and troubleshoot the North American wind turbine fleet from GE’s Renewable Operations Center in Schenectady.  Boardman loves the internship, which has broadened her intellectual horizons, given her real-world experience and opened up a new career path for her.    

“My enthusiasm and excitement for wind power has grown exponentially since working at GE Wind,” says Boardman, a junior at NJIT. “I'd really love a job in this field, especially at GE Wind, after I graduate.”

Boardman has an unusually interesting background for an engineering student.  She transferred to NJIT from the Rhode Island School of Design, where she majored in photography. She always excelled in mathematics, though, and ultimately realized she was more interested in electronics and electricity than in picture taking. 

In this interview, Boardman talks about her internship, her studies at NJIT, her decision to switch majors and schools as well as her new-found interest in renewable energy.

Are you enjoying the internship at GE Wind?
I've had a lot of fun so far. I've climbed a 100-meter tall wind turbine and ate lunch on top.  I've toured the steam turbine and generator manufacturing facilities here at GE, and have learned a lot about the company.   

Where is your job based?
My internship is at the GE headquarters in Schenectady, NY. Schenectady is not the most exciting town. However I’ve made many new friends and lots of activities such as biking, white-water rafting and volunteering for Habitat for Humanity have kept me busy.  GE gives me a housing stipend and I live in an apartment in town with another intern. I live close to the GE plant and I sometimes bicycle to work.

What projects are you working on for your internship? 
Generally I assist the fleet availability engineering team for GE Wind. This team’s goal is to keep GE’s fleet of wind turbines operating and producing power for customers. When a turbine faults or can't be reset, an engineer will log into the turbine remotely and try to diagnose the problem. They will look at the control system parameter settings, wind speed, schematics, secondary error messages, and then make recommendations to the field team on how to fix the problem. One of my jobs is to improve technical services by producing a weekly metric comparing the engineers’ recommendations with the actual field notes. I’m also helping to commercialize certain wind technical services and working to expand and automate the database that the engineers use to log cases.  It’s fascinating work.

Are you an environmentalist, or have you become one during your internship?
I’ve always been pretty environmentally-conscious, but this internship has really exposed me to renewable energy as a business, and I’ve seen how it’s run like any other engineering business. I’ve realized how, from a technical perspective, you’re dealing with the same old electrical and mechanical components of power generation, just in a different configuration. So wind is good mix of environmentalism and engineering, which is perfect for me.   

Might your internship lead to a full-time job at GE?
GE encourages its interns to apply for its Leadership Development Program after we graduate. If you are hired for that program, you work four, six-month long rotations at different GE divisions.  And while you are doing this you also work on your master’s degree.  I hope I’m invited back next summer to do a second GE internship, then after I graduate from NJIT next year I’ll apply for the Leadership Development Program. GE only hires former interns for the leadership program, so in that sense I’ll have a good chance of getting it. 

How did you get the internship?
I uploaded my resume to the Society of Women Engineers Career Center Database last year before attending the group’s national convention in Baltimore. Within a few weeks of posting it, I received an email from GE Energy asking me if I was attending the convention and if I would like to interview their for their internship program.  I agreed and in Baltimore I interviewed with an electrical engineer who worked at GE Wind; a few weeks later I received a letter offering me the job.

Sounds like the Society of Women Engineers is a great resource for women engineering students?
I would highly recommend getting involved with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and taking advantage of its networking and career events. SWE at NJIT is a great organization. I traveled to SWE’s national conference last November and highly recommend that women students attend the upcoming SWE 2009 conference in October.

You studied photography for three years at the Rhode Island School of Design. Why did you transfer to NJIT?
I transferred to NJIT in the fall of 2007 because realized I was more interested in the mechanical and electrical components of the camera than in creating meaningful images. Also, jobs for photographers these days are few, and engineers have better job prospects. The hardest part of switching schools and majors was the credits I lost.  There is also a dramatic difference in the way the fine arts is taught, compared to engineering classes, and that took some getting used to.

Are there ways in which photography and engineering are similar?
Photography is highly technical; you learn systematic techniques for controlling light to achieve a desired result.  And there are a host of variables to consider every time you take a picture: the intensity of light, how your exposure meter is reading light, your film speed, your aperture and shutter speed settings, the focal length of your lens, etc.  So I see a similarity in the two fields’ emphasis on precision.  Also, using photography as a form of expression requires that you look at things and capture images from your own perspective.  And engineering problems also often require a well-rounded perspective and a creative solution.

Looking back now, was it the right decision to transfer to NJIT?
I initially chose NJIT for its solid reputation and low cost, but I’ve had a fantastic experience here so far.  I like how the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is small enough that I know most everyone; the professors are really accessible and there’s no shortage of extracurricular stuff to get involved in. And when my classes resume in the fall I’ll get to study renewable energy. Through the BS/MS Program, I’ll concentrate in Power Systems, which includes how to integrate renewable energy into the nation’s power grid.  I’m excited about that. And it’s been extremely interesting to learn first-hand about the controls and power electronics that are incorporated into GE’s wind turbines.

Are you involved in many groups at NJIT?
I’m a student in the Albert Dorman Honors College, a great school with an exciting curriculum and extra-curricular events. There is no shortage of academic opportunities for Honors College students.  By the end of your time in the Honors College, you're guaranteed to have a dense resume. I think the college’s service requirement is great and I've certainly benefited from a generous honor’s scholarship. I’m also the publication director for Engineers Without Borders at NJIT, a student group that helps poor countries with engineering projects. We just completed a water purification project for a village in Haiti during our visit there in May. That trip was amazing.  This fall, we’ll design a solar water heater for a hospital in the same Haitian village.  I’m also a study group facilitator/tutor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and a member of Tau Beta Pi

Since wind power is no new, there must be exciting possibilities for its use. So it seems like your internship might be an avenue to an exciting future career? 
Yes, I was really surprised to find out that most of the engineers on my GE team were hired in the last year or two and so new to wind themselves.  By entering the field now, you are now getting in on the ground floor.  I really like the new frontier feeling of working in wind technology; that there’s so much to be learned and so many opportunities for technological improvement. I definitely want to work in the field after I graduate, and so I’m really grateful for this internship. 

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)