Michigan State University
Michigan State University
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Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures
Department of Writing
Rhetoric & American Cultures

Camaraderie, Creativity, and Challenge: My Internship at a Bay Area Non-Profit

Written by Sarah Mitchell, a third-year Professional Writing major

When someone mentions ‘Silicon Valley’ or ‘The Bay Area,’ there’s a certain image that comes to mind: It’s of wealthy, young twenty-somethings in Zuckerburg uniforms roaming huge campuses, sipping small-batch coffee, and programming for large tech companies. Silicon Valley promises glamour and innovation, with companies like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Tesla. However, although these companies may be the head of the Bay Area, the heart of the Bay lies in its non-profits.

I had the privilege to serve as the Marketing Intern at one of these non-profits this summer. Phoenix Bioinformatics is similar to many startups in the Bay Area: It’s run by a dozen people at most; it’s tucked away in a pleasant-but-small office suite; and it has a client base of hundreds of thousands of scientists around the world.

sarahinternship1edit.jpgEva Huala, our Executive Director, hosted the annual work picnic at her beautiful cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains. This was the first time I met most of my coworkers. Things were off to a great start.

Phoenix Bioinformatics has a mission to maintain and support scientific databases. It is also home to The Arabidopsis Information Resource (TAIR), a database that curates and hosts genetic information on Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flower that is essentially the lab rat of plants. The biocurators at TAIR mine through thousands of Arabidopsis-focused, peer-reviewed papers a year, searching for results that could benefit other scientists. They reorganize the information in a way that makes the data accessible to researchers around the world, bringing the scientific community together and furthering the study of plant biology as a whole.

I definitely would not call myself a biologist—the last time I even remotely encountered biology as a subject was in high school, and even then, I tried to avoid it at all costs. Knowing this, I was a little nervous going into a position where the majority of my coworkers had post-graduate degrees in plant biology and/or molecular biology. However, my background in humanities wasn’t a liability. In fact, it was an asset.

During my time as the Marketing Intern at Phoenix, everyone was very conscious of my internship as a learning experience. I had a large amount of influence on what projects I would be doing, and a lot of flexibility when it came to the projects themselves. There was plenty to learn: as a non-profit, everyone wore a variety of hats. Everyone worked in a small space together, and collaborated often. My coworkers were all very talented, and the nature of the company allowed people to combine their talents to optimize the organization as a whole.

One of my projects was a booklet for librarians. Librarians are Phoenix’s main target when offering TAIR subscriptions. They’re the ones who subscribe their institutions to the database, and they can reach out to other librarians to form a consortium, sometimes on a national level. Institutional librarians usually have a vast amount of technical knowledge when it comes to databases and archival systems such as TAIR, but may not necessarily be interested in the scientific specifics of the service. My main task, apart from designing the booklet itself, was to take the technical details of TAIR and change the rhetoric to reflect the interest of the librarians in charge. This required a lot of research, both on market standards and on the content involved.

sarahinternship3edit.jpgI collected some brand standards and incorporated elements to make the design of the librarian booklet (seen in monitor) cohesive and nice to look at. Side note: standing desks are amazing.

I was a little nervous: I’d never taken on such a large technical writing project alone before. Luckily, my coworkers were glad to fill in any gaps and explain any jargon exclusive to the scientific community. I was able to provide an outside perspective, changing the language to give the same message to a different audience. They helped me learn that it’s okay to ask for help when you don’t know something, no matter the setting. By working together and sharing knowledge, we built a better resource for librarians than we could have if we stuck to our respective fields of study.

In such a small organization, camaraderie is key: Even when things were busy and stressful, everyone got along really well. Wednesday afternoons held the official Tea Time: Whoever signed up for that week would bring in (usually themed) snacks, and everyone else would gather around the conference table. In some other companies, this could just be a cheap “team-building” technique.  However, at Phoenix, it was a time for everyone to genuinely relax, talk, and hang out.

sarahinternship2edit.jpg Tea time! From left to right: Eva Huala, Emily Strait, Donghui Li, Matt Sousae, Leonore Reiser, Andrey Vetushko, Trilok Prithvi, Qian Li, and Shabari Subramaniam. I feel so lucky to have worked with such a great group of people!

Working at Phoenix, I never felt like I was just some extraneous kid there to get another paragraph on their resume. I felt like I was a part of a club, and I truly felt that my projects made an impact. By stepping outside my comfort zone and diving into a new experience, I was able to work with this amazing group of people dedicated to helping the scientific community, which, with every discovery, helps the world.