This summer, a group of more than 40 talented high school, college, and graduate students from around the country learned what it is like to conduct research at NIEHS, through the National Institutes of Health Summer Internship Program (SIP). Their results were on display July 28 at the annual poster session in the Rodbell Auditorium.
The event also included posters by students in the NIEHS Scholars Connect Program (NSCP), led by Ericka Reid, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED).
Throughout the summer, participants worked on exciting research projects, attended journal clubs and seminars, and took part in career development workshops. Several students practiced their communication skills by giving short summaries of their work through the Big Picture, Small Talk seminar series.
“It takes a lot of time and effort to train and supervise a summer intern, but each year our scientists gladly take on this responsibility,” observed Debbie Wilson, who coordinates the interns for the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research. “I’m always thrilled at the support NIEHS scientists give to the Summer Internship Program.”
Gaining new knowledge from experienced mentors
Many interns appreciated working closely with experienced researchers. Erin Brooks, a senior at Duke University, noted that she had never worked with stem cells before starting her internship in the Cell Biology Group, headed by Anton Jetten, Ph.D. She learned new techniques, such as how to direct cells toward a specific developmental path, whether they were neurons or any number of specialized cells.
Gloria Regalado, a statistics major at North Carolina State University (NCSU), did analyses of data from the Two Sister Study, for her project with Clarice Weinberg, Ph.D., in the Biostatistics and Computational Biology Branch. She felt that working with her mentors was the best part of the program. “They gave me a curiosity to learn about the things I’m studying and not just see the data as numbers,” she said. “It has encouraged me to ask more questions.” Her experience led her to consider pursuing epidemiology in graduate school.
Discovering the joys of laboratory research
Students also liked learning how research in a lab really unfolds — for instance, that it can be truly collaborative. “[The lab is] like a little family,” said Evelyn Cabon, who worked in the Macromolecular Structure Group. “Even though they all have their own research projects, they all collaborate.”
Rohanit Singh, a rising junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), plans to attend medical school and study the cardiovascular system. His plans were further strengthened by his summer studying how the heart recovers after experiencing loss of blood flow, or cardiac ischemia, in the Environmental Cardiopulmonary Group, headed by NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D.
Singh enjoyed lab work, including seeing firsthand that experiments do not always go as planned. “It can be frustrating at times, but gathering this research, and hopefully helping people, is a rewarding experience.”
Introducing future career options
Many participants valued the career development activities, such as the workshop on applying to graduate and medical schools. Jaisal Amin, a NSCP participant, appreciated a career panel in which NIEHS leadership shared their different professional paths. Their insights showed her a wide range of future career possibilities after she graduates next year from NCSU, and beyond.
Alicia Richards, a rising senior at UNC, researched how flame retardant substances behave in the body, working in the National Cancer Institute Laboratory of Toxicology and Toxicokinetics, led by Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). Richards echoed the profound impact of learning about other scientists’ career journeys. “I enjoyed meeting so many scientists who explained how they got where they are,” she said.
“The Summer Internship Program is a vital part of the NIEHS scientific program,” said Acting Deputy Scientific Director Paul Wade, Ph.D. “To see our world through their eyes revitalizes all of us and adds immensely to the richness of the NIEHS.”
(Samantha Hall is a postbaccalaureate Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA) fellow in the National Cancer Institute Center for Cancer Research Laboratory of Toxicology and Toxicokinetics, housed at NIEHS.)