What Vacation?

By Bob Grant What Vacation? Johanna Joyce (W); Alison Spencer (T); Gary Bassell (A); Dan Pong (C); Will Bringgold (T); Karen Kirner (I); Barbara Kirkpatrick (N). Bassell, Pong, and Bringgold images courtesy of the bassell lab / www.basselllab.com Ah summer! It's a time for easy living, a relaxed teaching schedule, perhaps a leisurely sabbatical, some tall cold drinks, and... undergraduate interns. The National Science Fou

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob Grant is Editor in Chief of The Scientist, where he started in 2007 as a Staff Writer.

View full profile.


Learn about our editorial policies.

Jul 1, 2009

What Vacation?

Johanna Joyce (W); Alison Spencer (T); Gary Bassell (A); Dan Pong (C); Will Bringgold (T); Karen Kirner (I); Barbara Kirkpatrick (N).
Bassell, Pong, and Bringgold images courtesy of the bassell lab / www.basselllab.com

Ah summer! It's a time for easy living, a relaxed teaching schedule, perhaps a leisurely sabbatical, some tall cold drinks, and... undergraduate interns. The National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program places about 140 undergrads in biology labs every summer, while the National Institutes of Health invites about 800 undergraduate researchers to work in its intramural laboratories in an average year. These aspiring scientists can waste your precious reagents, make egregious miscalculations, and just take up space. But they can also bring big rewards. A summer internship done right can not only launch a young scientist's career, but can also further your research and push it in directions you never expected. All in 10...

Here are some stories of successful internships and the tricks that made them work.

A Foot in the Door

The Mentor—Johanna Joyce, Memorial Sloan-Kettering cancer biologist
The Intern—Alison Spencer, 21. Internship: summer 2008
The Program—SURP (Summer Undergraduate Research Program)

Alison Spencer, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Rochester, became part of a pretty exclusive club when she landed a summer internship in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's program last summer. This year, there were approximately 800 applicants for 20 available slots in the program, according to C. Gita Bosch, a program administrator.

Spencer made the cut by submitting a particularly well-written application, says her mentor Johanna Joyce, who studies the mechanisms used by tumor cells to co-opt the host in mouse models. It also didn't hurt to have a recommendation from a mentor at Spencer's previous summer internship at Cold Spring Harbor, who happened to be Joyce's close friend. It was that personal connection "that made the difference," Joyce says.

Undergraduates are going to ask you questions that you're not going to get from a graduate student or a postdoc.—Gary Bassell

Joyce's lab had been tracking down how a family of 11 cathepsin proteases affected angiogenesis and tumor growth by creating a knockout mouse for one cathepsin gene at a time.

Joyce's grad student Leny Gocheva found that knocking out one or the other of two cathepsin proteases slowed angiogenesis, and wondered if knocking out both might heighten their individual effects on blood vessel growth. Joyce and Gocheva thought that using immuno- and fluorochemistry to characterize the phenotype of the double knockout was perfect for a summer intern project, so they set Spencer to work on the study.

To everyone's surprise, Spencer described an unanticipated phenotype in the double knockout mouse. Gocheva is currently following up on the results, and Joyce says that Spencer will be included as a coauthor on the paper she plans to publish.

Spencer is returning to Memorial Sloan-Kettering for her graduate study. "I think she's going to be a fantastic graduate student," Joyce says.

Tips for faculty:

1. Send your intern a prep package: Joyce sent Spencer a project outline and some pertinent literature as soon as she was accepted into the program. "It was nice to be able to have an idea of what could be happening because there's so much uncertainty" at the start of a summer internship, Spencer remembers.

2. Offer your students autonomy: Spencer's grad-student mentor went to Europe on vacation with three weeks of her internship left to go. She had to do the remainder of her data analysis with little help. "It was definitely a little bit intimidating," Spencer recalls, "I knew that it was completely up to me." She ended up dazzling Joyce. "She was essentially running the project," explains Joyce. "She really ran with it and did a huge amount of analysis in those last few weeks. She came into her own."

3. Find a mentor that matches: Joyce paired Spencer with Gocheva because he had formulated a nice side project that grew from her own research, but also because Joyce likes to pair her undergrad interns with labmates who are closer in age and career experience.

Two Undergrads Better Than One?

The Mentor—Gary Bassell, Emory University neurobiologist.
The Intern—Will Bringgold, 20, and Dan Pong, 21. Internship: summer 2008.
The Program—SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research at Emory)

Before Gary Bassell accepted his new summer interns, he thought about how to carve off bite-sized projects from his postdoctoral students' work. Bassell's lab focuses on understanding the role of mRNA regulation and protein synthesis in axon guidance, nerve regeneration, and synaptic plasticity. "Backburner" questions are perfect for undergrads, says Bassel. "I tend to design an [undergraduate] project that's based on some preliminary data that we have already," he says.

When Will Bringgold and Dan Pong joined the lab, their projects were essentially ready to go. Bassell set Bringgold on characterizing which proteins are upregulated after nerve damage in mice. Pong studied changing expression levels for voltage-gated potassium channels in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome.

A summer internship done right can not only launch a young scientist's career, but can also further your research and push it in directions you never expected

Bassell says that both Bringgold and Pong brought fresh perspectives to their projects. Bringgold, for example, helped to improve the methodology involved with the sciatic nerve crush procedures he used in his project by modifying how the nerve was ligated—a trick Bassell still uses today. Pong suggested expanding the scope of his project to test a broader range of potassium channels in the mouse brain to see if fragile X syndrome affected more proteins than the one—KV4.2—singled out in Bassell's original study design.

Bringgold and Pong are likely to be coauthors on research papers that result from their summer research, says Bassell. While that's good for both Bassell and his students, it's not the biggest benefit he gains from hosting interns. "Undergraduates are going to ask you questions that you're not going to get from a graduate student or a postdoc," he says. "You get into very broad discussions about science," such as how the biochemistry involved in signal propagation plays into "how the mind works."

Tips for faculty:

1. Don't incorporate methods development: Designing new assays or requiring complicated calibrations should be avoided in undergraduate research projects. "That's often a curse," Bassell says. Instead, stick to tried and tested methods to ask new questions. With a short internship, time should be spent gathering data rather than perfecting methods, Bassell says.

2. Offer fun as well as learning: Bassell says that one key to attracting good undergrads lies in the way he pitches himself and his lab to potential interns. At Emory, Bassell says, faculty members write Paragraph-long project summaries for intern candidates to peruse. "I actually say that they will have fun and enjoy their experience," while most faculty members fail to incorporate that message in their project descriptions, Bassell notes. He says that creating a fun environment in the lab leads to greater engagement and productivity. "I do take it seriously to see that [undergraduates] are enjoying themselves."

3. Mentor more than one undergrad: Bassell typically invites four or five undergraduate interns into his lab every summer. This creates a camaraderie that might not exist between grad students and a lone undergrad. "It's such a good environment for a young person to work in when you have other undergraduates around you," Pong notes.

An Unconventional Project

The Mentor—Barbara Kirkpatrick, public health scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory.
The Intern—Karen Kirner, 21. Internship: summer in 2007.
The Program—Program—The National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU ) Program at the Mote Marine Lab.

The Mote Marine Laboratory, a nonprofit, private marine research lab in Sarasota, Fla., hosts interns funded by the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. The funding pays for travel, lodging, and stipends for summer undergrad interns, and can also offset some equipment or facilities costs directly related to undergrad projects.

Karen Kirner, a double major in environmental studies and anthropology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, scored a spot in the Mote program in the summer of 2007 with Barbara Kirkpatrick, director of the lab's environmental health program. Kirkpatrick says that Kirner was an attractive candidate because she had interests that lay somewhat outside her own.

That summer, Kirkpatrick was working on how human health is affected by red tides, the harmful algal blooms that plague the Florida coast every year. Exploding populations of dinoflagellates eject brevitoxin—a potent neurotoxin—into the coastal air, causing respiratory issues in humans and spurring fish kills along the coast. Kirner decided to bring a sociological bent by looking at economic factors, specifically how the algal blooms affected workplace productivity of lifeguards who are required to work even on days when red tides peak.

Kirkpatrick suggested reviewing attendance records kept by the county, but Kirner wanted to interview the lifeguards directly. "[Kirkpatrick] was really open to me having suggestions about the project," Kirner says. "My ideas were really valid."

Kirner combed the literature for data on the economic impact of red tides, designed survey questions to ask lifeguards, and developed statistical analyses that would help her arrive at significant conclusions at the end of her project. Her data indicated for the first time that red tides did negatively impact lifeguard productivity and alertness. Kirkpatrick says that she will likely submit the paper Kirner wrote about her summer research and that the two plan on presenting the data at a national algae conference being held in Washington State this November.

The perspective that Kirner brought to Kirkpatrick's lab had a lasting impression. Kirkpatrick says that she submitted two grant proposals—one to NSF and the other to NIH—to further explore the societal impacts of red tides. "[Kirner] got me interested in the human dimension, the social science," Kirkpatrick recalls. "Having her here, being a part of her project, really piqued my interest in continuing to go down that path once she left."

Tips for faculty:

1. Give a daily dose: Kirkpatrick says that she made an effort to check in with Kirner every day. This made navigating her summer project much easier for Kirner. When summer interns aren't as hard working, this becomes even more important, Kirkpatrick says. "If you accept being a mentor, you accept the risk that there's going to be some lemons and some lemonade," Kirkpatrick says. "How do you turn it around? I try to just spend more time with them and see where they're road blocking."

2. Offer alternatives when experiments fail: Kirner's research hit a snag during the summer. In order to involve humans in her project, she needed to apply to an institutional review board for permission. "[My application] got caught in some red tape and took a little while to approve," Kirner remembers. It ended up taking six months to get the clearance she needed. Her internship ended before the approval came. Undaunted, Kirkpatrick urged Kirner to return to Mote the following summer to conduct her lifeguard interviews, when her application was finally approved.

3. Get your interns out of the lab: The work that interns get done in the lab is important, but so are the experiences that they have outside the lab. Many summer programs include career workshops, guest lectures, and interactions with researchers other than an intern's mentor. Kirkpatrick says that, with its mixture of disciplines and focuses, the Mote Marine lab is particularly good at offering interns variety, and Kirner agrees. "Part of this internship was about doing a project," Kirner says, "but part of it was experiencing life at a research institute."

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?