Sheela Sankaram at work in Arup Lighting's Amsterdam office.
Courtesy of Sheela Sankaram Sheela Sankaram at work in Arup Lighting's Amsterdam office.

To be honest, I had no idea that the lighting design profession even existed until I began researching my graduate school options. I first became fascinated by light and its effect on built space after taking several lighting studio classes while pursuing my undergraduate degree in environmental design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. I applied to the Master of Fine Arts Lighting Design program at Parsons the New School for Design because I wanted to pursue a focused study of light. Two years later, however, upon completion of my studies, I approached my graduation still feeling somewhat dubious about what exactly to do with my newly acquired degree and skill set. Numerous questions rang in my mind: How can lighting design expand its role in the building process? Why are there no design/build studios for lighting designers? How come more architectural firms do not have in-house lighting designers? What else might I do with this specialized training?

The Arup Student Award, which I received shortly after my graduation in May 2006, helped me answer some of these questions and further clarify my thinking about choosing lighting design as a career. The purpose of the award—to help foster a more fluid transition from school to work—was well suited for me, a recent graduate still curious about what I wanted to do with my lighting education.

The Arup Student Award, sponsored by Arup Lighting through the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD), provides a recent graduate from a course of study primarily focused in lighting design to work for three months in Arup's Amsterdam or London office, along with housing and a modest stipend. During the program, there are three areas of interest award recipients can choose to pursue: daylighting, integrated design, and product design. These categories are somewhat flexible and are meant as a tool to help the award recipient select which projects they would like to work on and how they will focus their program. These three “tracks” are derived from specialties within Arup and correlate to the firm's structure of multiple engineering and design teams working at 86 offices globally. Each office is multi-modal, and teams cover a variety of specialties, everything from architecture to lighting to climate engineering. The lighting team in Amsterdam is part of the Design and Technology group, one of three primary groups within the Amsterdam office.

Of the three tracks, I chose integrated design, which focuses on the multidisciplinary aspect of Arup. (The daylighting track is meant to tap into the collective expertise of the different lighting groups, such as special daylight analysis tools and custom software. The product design track focuses on custom project-related lighting products developed through the lighting team in collaboration with other Arup disciplines, as well as outside consultants.) I mainly worked on projects that involved the expertise and input of several different Arup teams. One project, Kilometro Rosso, a short-term concept project for the creation of a media façade on a new power station that would tell a story about the generation and use of energy, enabled me to work with the Foresight and Innovation team in Arup's London office.

The Arup Student Award program, which is a mixture of an internship and a guest junior design position, offers recent graduates hands-on experience and exposure to a broad range of project types. Some projects I worked on were very short in their duration, as in the case of a competition for a “lighting vision” for Amsterdam's Central Station, which resulted in a presentation booklet and accompanying drawing boards. Others, such as the Talee shopping center in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, a project with Amsterdam-based architecture firm UN Studio, will take several years to complete and will be worked on by many members of Arup design and engineering teams. The Kaohsiung project involves interior public space lighting and a dynamic façade with dichroic glass, which required extensive materials studies and mockups. This was the first project I worked on when I arrived in Amsterdam. In fact, the deadline for the project's first phase was two weeks after my arrival.

Every few weeks the Amsterdam lighting team, which consisted of five people at the time and is led by Rogier van der Heide, met to discuss current and future projects. For the most part I was able to choose the projects I wanted to work on, although they had to fit within the office and project work flow structures.

This program offered me a valuable perspective in terms of experiencing the practice of lighting design in Europe and within both the Arup firm structure as a whole and locally in the Amsterdam office, which I would not call typical given its multidisciplinary business model. The experience also helped me develop my communication skills and establish contacts with other professionals. Not only was I able to present the work I was contributing to Arup projects, but I also was able to present my master thesis to different teams within Arup. The feedback from experienced professionals was invaluable, as was the exchange of ideas.

One important and unique aspect of this program is that it provides an international exchange that is otherwise difficult to do outside a traditional academic exchange program, particularly in terms of the paperwork that is required to secure visa applications and work permits. When I was researching firms before graduation, I had looked into working outside the United States but found it nearly impossible as a U.S. citizen to be able to travel abroad and work without having both parties (myself and my potential employer) sign long-term contracts.

The Arup Student Award is still in its infancy and will continue to evolve. The program provides an interesting dynamic between pursuing one's own interests while also receiving firsthand work experience by being part of a design team. In particular, this experience gave me a bit more time to experiment before settling into a job, which is what I needed at this early point in my career. I look forward to seeing what next year's award recipient makes of this experience.

Sheela Sankaram received her MFA in lighting design from Parsons the New School for Design. She currently is working with the lighting group in Arup's Amsterdam office.