Where Are They Now: Lea Jih-Vieira’s Path from Math to Data Science and Systems Engineering

Karolina Wilk, staff writer
portrait of young adult female

A portrait of Lea Jih-Vieira, former WHK and BACS intern. (Photo provided by Jih-Vieira.)

Former Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) Student Intern Program participant Lea Jih-Vieira followed a narrow path of interest and discovered a plethora of possibilities. When she first learned about the WHK internship from an information session at her high school, Jih-Vieira wasn’t sure about applying because it seemed geared toward laboratory work, which didn’t capture her interest. But, with some encouragement from her mom, Jih-Vieira applied and was accepted for an internship with NCI Frederick’s Office of Scientific Operations (OSO).

She was excited about the open-endedness of the role: she could work on anything from outreach events to data analysis. In school, mathematics was her strength, so she was especially interested in the data analysis opportunities. This internship ignited her career path when she saw how her academic interests could be put to work in the real world.

“Working as a WHK intern in OSO informed me of the applications that mathematics could have, as school focused more on the theoretical rather than the applied,” Jih-Vieira said.

During her internship, Jih-Vieira evaluated the statistical trends of WHK interns and presented her findings at the WHK Winter Poster Session and the Spring Research Festival. She also founded an initiative under the NCI Frederick Educational Outreach Program (EOP) to help local elementary students from participate in the annual Frederick County Science and Engineering Fair. (The project was integrated into the EOP but was later interrupted by the pandemic.)

Aside from her achievements during this internship, the opportunity taught her many valuable technical and soft skills that have stuck with her through her college and career journey. She credits working closely with her mentor, Melissa Porter, prior OSO administrative manager, as well as other OSO staff, including Marsha Nelson-Duncan, former OSO education outreach specialist; Cathy Cullen, former OSO education program outreach specialist; Walter Hubert, Ph.D., OSO scientific program director and scientific advisor to the WHK program; and Richard Folkers, communications manager at NCI’s Office of Communication and Public Liaison.

Specifically, Jih-Vieira mentioned that Cullen, who helped tremendously with her work on the Science Fair project, taught her how to “go with the flow and troubleshoot problems on the spot.”

Jih-Vieira added, “Since I am someone who is typically pretty detail-oriented and can struggle to adjust to last-minute changes, I deeply appreciated Cathy’s mentorship and have found that those skills are applicable to all parts of life, not just work.”

She also loved working with her co-interns because they learned to play to their strengths and divide and conquer their workloads. She continues to stay in touch with Cullen and her other OSO mentors, as well as her fellow OSO interns.

Jih-Vieira is thankful for her NCI connections because they opened additional internship opportunities early in her undergraduate career. When many of her peers struggled to find internships, Nelson-Duncan connected Jih-Vieira to Randy Johnson, Ph.D., former scientific technical project manager with the Bioinformatics and Computational Science (BACS) directorate, and arranged a summer internship that included a role in an exciting technical project.

At BACS, Jih-Vieira worked under Johnson and Brian Luke, Ph.D., senior principal computational scientist, on developing an app through Shiny, an open-source R package that provides a framework for building web applications, called the Biomarker Discovery Kit, which uses predictive analysis to identify diseases more rapidly in patients. This project used a series of more than 14 statistical filters to identify significant disease biomarkers. She collaborated in a team of three to set project goals, debug code, and optimize functions.

Jih-Vieira said working on the kit was her favorite project because it taught her a lot of machine learning and programming skills that she still uses.

“Randy and Brian really encouraged me to think independently about the work we were doing and how to preserve complexity while also optimizing the project. These skills are all transferrable in the data science field and led me to be successful in my subsequent internships as well,” Jih-Vieira said.

The accomplishments, mentors, and new skills aren’t the only upsides of her internships: Jih-Vieira also left with new goals and a career path.

“I came into the WHK program only knowing I had a passion for mathematics but had no clue what to do with it. After my internships, I was certain about pursuing a data science career,” Jih-Vieira said.

After two summers interning with BACS, Jih-Vieira wanted to explore this field in a different industry and completed a data engineering internship with the Ford Motor Company. She graduated from Cornell University in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in information science, with a concentration in data science and a minor in law and society.

Now, she is interning at McMaster-Carr, an industrial equipment supplier, as a management development intern with the distribution operations team. In the fall, Jih-Vieira will continue her education as a graduate student at the University of Virginia, studying systems engineering.

She’s looking forward to the program and her future career: “Systems engineering is quite open-ended, like data science, so the skills are highly transferrable no matter the industry I choose to work in … Since data science is applicable to all industries, I am curious to know where I end up—the opportunities are endless!”

As parting advice, Jih-Vieira wants to encourage future interns to find meaningful projects and pursue their interests: “Be open with your mentors about your interests and see where it will take you.”


Karolina Wilk is a science communications and training specialist (ad hoc) in Scientific Publications, Graphics & Media (SPGM), where she writes for NCI Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory’s news outlets and edits scientific manuscripts, corporate documentation, and other writing. SPGM is the facilities’ creative services department and hub for editing, illustration, graphic design, formatting, and multimedia training and support.

Lea Jih-Vieira (center, in red) playing polo on her undergraduate team. (Photo provided by Jih-Vieira.) Lea Jih-Vieira as an undergrad, working on a bug collection, a hobby she picked up while working with an entomologist during college. (Photo provided by Jih-Vieira.) Lea Jih-Vieira (right) with friends during her graduation from Cornell University. (Photo provided by Jih-Vieira.)