How these Rice students are interning for Amazon during COVID-19

Amazon made the decision to not only maintain their summer internship program but to move it remotely.

Ying Zhou, Zhanhang “Jill” Zhou, Ruitao Xu

The arrival of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown earlier this year upset many academic rites of passage traditionally followed by students.

How, for instance, do you work a summer internship in a stay-at-home environment compounded by social distancing? Around Christmas, Ying Zhou was offered a position as intern at Amazon. She looked online for an apartment in Seattle but, fortunately, never signed a lease.

“Amazon contacted me in early April. They said I could still work for them and that we would work remotely. Some companies were doing that and some were not,” said Zhou, who last year entered the professional master’s program in computer science (CS) at Rice.

Amazon made the decision to not only maintain their summer internship program but to move them remotely. This came as a relief to Zhou, whose academic path was already a little unconventional.

After earning her B.S. in biological science from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou in 2011, she went on to get a Ph.D. in integrative molecular and biomedical sciences from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“My computing skills were not strong. I had very little programming experience, and I need to work with very large data sets. This is why I came to Rice for the professional master’s program, even though I already had my Ph.D.,” said Zhou, whose internship at Amazon started on May 11.

Another Amazon summer intern is Zhanhang “Jill” Zhou, who entered the Rice professional master’s program in computational and applied mathematics in 2019 after earning her B.S. in mathematics from the University of Texas at Austin.

“I was always interested in the applied aspects of mathematics. I knew I would need a master’s degree to continue the research I wanted to do,” said Zhou, who is working as a software development engineering intern at Amazon through July 31.

She has had to adjust to working remotely and becoming part of a team with people she has never met. Like the other interns she works weekdays from noon to 8 p.m. (PST).

“They’ve already taught me a lot of stuff and given me a lot of good work experience,” she said.

Ruitao Xu earned his B.S. in computer science and technology from Nanjing University of Science and Technology in 2019 and entered the CS professional master’s program at Rice that same year.

“I like Texas. I like sunshine. I heard Rice University had a very beautiful environment,” said Xu, who learned of the Amazon internships last fall during a job fair on the Rice campus.

Though his adjustment to virtual work has been slow — “It’s hard to balance life and the work process. The barrier becomes blurred” — Xu still has high expectations:

“I expect to learn a lot at Amazon. And with my professional master’s degree from Rice I expect to get a job with one of the big tech companies.”