Building for the future: Celebrating a decade of STEM internships at PA
Do you remember which new technologies were starting to shape people’s lives in 2013? “Selfie” was the word of the year – three years after Apple released its first front-facing iPhone camera. Mobile devices overtook PCs as the most common web access tool, while the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas unveiled flexible tablet computers, autonomous vehicles, and ultra-definition TVs.
And 2013 was also the year of the first STEM internship programme at our Global Innovation and Technology Centre in Cambridge. For the past decade, we’ve enabled university students to experience working in innovation and given them opportunities to work on projects tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges. During the 10-week summer placement, students are mentored by some of the brightest minds in design, science, and technology, experiencing work in multi-disciplinary teams, and gaining understanding of a broad range of capabilities – from design, new technologies, and engineering – to practical project and presentation skills. They also use state-of-the art prototyping facilities and laboratories to deliver their project.
In addition to university internships, we host two-week work experience programmes, where students sample what it’s like to work in STEM.
As we celebrate 10 years of our internship programme, we look back to over a decade of technological advances and consider how interns’ efforts have given them real-time experience of the evolving the technology landscape.
¹ Rentokil: Launching an award winning Internet of Things cloud platform to handle 24 million messages a day
² Notpla: Starting a revolution with a waste-free alternative to plastic bottles
³ Additive manufacturing history: From the 1980s to now
⁵ Tea Sheets: Reinventing the tea bag
⁶ DSTL: Keeping people safe by harnessing quantum computing
⁷ PA Consulting and Pulpac announce Bottle Collective
⁸ Paper bottle innovation heats up with creation of Bottle Collective
From prototype air monitoring devices to leveraging Internet of Things in the Cloud
In 2013, two interns designed and built a battery powered device that fits to a bicycle to measure indicators of pollution. The concept showed when given sufficient network coverage, the device connected to the Internet of Things, which in turn, could integrate with big data architecture to spot trends and patterns in pollution distributions.
The interns hit the nail on the head – 10 years later, mobile air pollution sensors offer a means of measuring pollution data over a wide area – a big advantage over previously expensive and unscalable air monitoring systems. The idea anticipated a world where connectivity between devices would be fast and reliable – delivering near real-time global exchange of information between multiple connected devices. Six years after the internship project, 5G networks were launched across six cities in the UK, and suddenly, mounting sensors on vehicles to monitor pollution levels across developed areas became a reality.
By 2016, our experts were working with Rentokil Initial and Google on the global deployment of its innovative, digitally connected pest control product, which enabled real-time monitoring of pest infestation. We collaborated with Rentokil, expanding their connected business to 10,000 sites within less than a year, utilising our expertise in agile delivery of Cloud and Internet of Things solutions. And today, we’re working with Cloud providers like Google, Microsoft, and AWS to transform organisations across public and private sectors.
From listening and breathing to chip-free connected inhalers
In 2013, an intern investigated the potential of deducing lung health from acoustic measurements. They researched literature on acoustic signatures of various pulmonary conditions and applied signal filtering analysis to see whether breathing signatures could be identified in sound recordings. Having designed a detailed system architecture for the breathing rate monitor, the intern built and tested a suitable sensor with a prototype circuit. They found the whole system, including the processor and communications module, could operate at a low power, making it a versatile monitoring method.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated research efforts around identifying the acoustic tell-tale signs of infection. A low cost and non-invasive means of detecting infected people in situations where molecular diagnostic testing could not be conducted is hugely attractive. The approach requires large datasets from consenting patients to train algorithms, which might be one reason why we haven’t been able to ditch lateral flow and PCR tests just yet.
Identifying acoustic signs of infection sparked an idea, combining acoustic analysis with machine learning to evaluate the effectiveness of inhalers used to treat pulmonary conditions. An inhaler typically releases a dose in less than half a second. Breathing in after that window deposits a significant proportion to the mouth or throat instead of the lungs – essentially wasting a significant portion of the drug. Our scientists demonstrated that an image recognition algorithm could be adapted to listen to an inhaler during normal use and produce a 98 percent confidence level of correctly identifying the inhaler’s acoustic signature. An app running the tailored acoustic analysis algorithm indicates when the peak flow rate occurs and prompts the patient to inhale at the optimal time to receive the intended dose – adding connectivity without having to add a chip or modify the inhaler in any way. In our 80-year history of technology innovation, PA has worked on the development of hundreds of medical devices and the transformation of healthcare systems globally.
Our future innovators
Our internship programme is a valuable way for students to apply their learning to real-world challenges, giving them experiences to help shape, and guide their future careers. The students work on meaningful projects with the potential to have a long-term impact, while we gain fresh perspectives and challenges to our thinking. Supporting students also develops supervisors’ skills further, and interns have an opportunity to join PA and build their career with us.
We have seen first-hand that a purposeful internship programme inspires innovation. Ideas generated by young people have led to tangible products and services which continue to shape our world. We celebrate 10 years of using science, engineering, and design thinking to build a more equitable world. We also look forward to the innovative ideas future cohorts of interns will bring. A decade on, the PA internship programme is just getting started.