How a Research Internship Taught the Importance of Collaboration

Varsha Appaji ’21 was the 2019 recipient of the Vaughn Foreign Services and International Affairs Scholarship. This summer, she applied that scholarship as a research intern for the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy think-tank located in Washington, D.C. Today, we asked her about her experience: 

Tell us about your internship.

I had the opportunity to work on projects for Stimson’s Strategic Trade Management Initiative and their Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program. I researched information on trade of nuclear and radiological materials and how the trade patterns of certain countries measured up to the amount and quality of their regulations. This work involved using R – a statistical computing program – to create data visualizations and models, which was great real-world experience for me. I also researched the challenges surrounding the field of counter-proliferation financing. Both of these projects served to inform the decisions of two governments that aspire to play a greater role in global non-proliferation efforts.

During the latter half of my internship, I conducted research on Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), which is the umbrella technology of Blockchain, and wrote about its potential applications to the security and defense space. This project was especially exciting to me because I have always been interested in the effects and applications of emerging tech on social, economic, and security levels.

Could you talk a little bit about any of the specific applications you looked into?

Definitely. One of my tasks was researching the current practices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) projects in Syria. Often, their work faces attacks from Russian and Syrian authorities, who call into question the credibility of the evidence used to substantiate claims of chemical weapons use. With that context in mind, I worked to identify the specific vulnerabilities of the OPCW to credibility attacks, which allowed me to provide insight on how the organization could possibly use Distributed Ledger Technology to remedy some of these deficiencies.

What were some of your biggest takeaways from this experience? 

Working in a real-world setting opened my eyes to the intricacies of coordination. I realized the importance of engaging all the stakeholders involved with an issue, even the ones that are not obvious at first. Otherwise, attempts at solving a problem are usually futile.

For example, with issues like proliferation, there are numerous players involved—national governments, international organizations, scientific communities, shipping companies, banks, and more—and a failure to properly regulate each of these players could result in WMD materials ending up in the wrong hands.

Fortunately, think tanks like the Stimson Center play a large role in facilitating this engagement. Primarily, they help to set a common agenda that private and public entities can share. They also do the important work of building stakeholder relationships face-to-face. I’ve learned that this goes a long way when trying to create actionable solutions.

An additional takeaway, among many others, is that technology influences every field, even if it may not seem obvious at first. Even the most entrenched industries need to adapt and can greatly benefit from doing so.

How do you think the experiences you had this summer will factor into your long-term goals? 

This internship was definitely a pivotal experience for me. I received an insider glance into how the policy world functions and how the people in it communicate. This experience definitely gave me a lot more confidence to network and engage with field experts, which as everyone knows is hugely important!

Furthermore, I got to work on research and data analysis purely at the technical level, but with a creative dimension as well, in that I had to present my findings to a variety of audiences with different goals and backgrounds. Along with my takeaway on the importance of engagement, this skill is surely a valuable one to have as a policy professional. I am so thankful to the Tower Center and to the Vaughn family for this valuable and substantive experience this summer.

So, what are some of your next steps? 

In the long run, I want to be involved in an intersection of technology and policy where innovation serves to positively impact socioeconomic development. Right now, my focus is on continuing research on the use of DLT for supply chain management and how small businesses around the world can use technology to create more inclusive and sustainable ecosystems. This research field, which provides insight into tech, coordination issues, international relations, economics, and much more, will hopefully help me grow in knowledge such that will be useful to both the public and private sectors.

If you would like an opportunity to intern in Washington D.C., go here to learn more about scholarships and fellowships available to SMU students.