Internships give Arizona students unique opportunities in science

September 18, 2006

By Flinn Foundation

This summer, many students in Arizona had an opportunity that most of their parents never would have dreamed of at their age.

Instead of working the typical summer job, these high school and college students were able to work as researchers in major research institutions, gaining real-world experience in science.

At the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, a new program allowed 18 high school students from around the Phoenix metropolitan area to conduct research in areas as diverse as nanobioscience, neural systems, glycoscience, and infectious diseases.

Students were paired with mentors in their areas of interest, working an average of 20 hours per week in various laboratories within the Biodesign Institute over the course of eight weeks.

In order to eliminate economic barriers to participation, the student internships were paid positions.

For most students, the mentor-based internship was their first experience in the laboratory setting.

Mita Shah, a McClintock High School graduate entering Wellesley College, says that her mentoring experience was surprisingly empowering.

“I was very skeptical at first,” says Shah of her expectations for the program. “I thought I was going to be washing test tubes the whole time. But, when I came in my first day at the lab, my mentor took me aside and said, ‘You need to run this experiment by yourself. Here’s how you do it–you do it now.'”

Shah adds, “They treated me like an adult, and like an actual researcher.”

For many students, experience in the laboratory helped them narrow down difficult academic and career choices.

Raza Mushtao, a senior at Chandler High School, said the internship has helped guide his future career path. “For me, it was neurology or political science,” Mushtao says of his top choices. “This experience narrowed it down to neurology. It got me excited for the medical field.”

Other students felt that they gained from simply being part of a laboratory environment.

“At the Biodesign Institute, you get to meet a lot of researchers who are doing different projects,” says Brian Chase, a recent graduate from Mesa High School who has just started his freshman year at ASU.

“People collaborate and help each other out with research, so it’s a really good atmosphere,” Chase adds.

Kathryn Scheckel, a senior from Xavier High School, agrees with Chase. “It was really interesting for me to see the very interdisciplinary nature of science and how everyone works together to solve a common problem,” she says.

According to Kimberly Ovitt, the program’s director, part of the program’s purpose is to help develop a workforce to support the growing biotech economy in Arizona.

“If we’re going to grow our biotech economy here in Arizona, we need a pipeline of students heading into the workforce,” Ovitt explains.

“We want to accelerate students who are already interested in science into these programs to ensure a well-prepared workforce as quickly as possible, while we also begin to cultivate students who have great potential but who may not have considered a science or technology career.”

The Biodesign Center is not the only institution focused on developing Arizona’s young scientists.

At the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), a summer internship program places between 50-60 high school and college students in the laboratory for 8-10 weeks.

Lara Cardy, an ASU undergraduate who interned in TGen’s neurogenomics division, says that she found the wide range of ages to be one of the program’s greatest strengths.

“Not only does it permit a greater exchange of information between interns to create an even more valuable learning environment, but it also creates the sense of a ‘real’ working environment where your coworkers are of varying age and experience levels,” says Cardy.

Like the Biodesign program, TGen places students with mentors. The only difference is, mentors interview and handpick the students with whom they would like to work.

The value of the program, says program director Candice Nulsen, is that it grants students insight into whether they would like to make a career of science. “If you’re interested in science, the fastest way to figure out whether or not you want to do that long-term is to go and do a hands-on research internship,” she says.

It was through this type of hands-on experience that Cardy, a speech and hearing science major who works with autistic children, found an interest in research so compelling that she is now rethinking her academic route.

“I went into the internship quite hesitant because I really do not have a strong science background,” explains Cardy, who was able to conduct research related to autism while in the program.

“However, because my experience over the summer was so fantastic, I’m strongly considering pursuing research as a career and even changing my liberal arts major to science,” says Cardy.

According to Nulsen, students involved in the program have already begun to give positive feedback about their experiences at TGen.

“I’m starting to get a lot of evaluation surveys back, and a huge percentage of them are indicating that they had a really positive experience and that they would like to come back and do it again,” says Nulsen.

As for the future of the program, which has just completed its second year, Nulsen’s top priorities are grant-writing to secure further funding, and recruiting more minority students.

The program this summer received a one-time donation from the Herberger family, longtime supporters of the arts and education in Phoenix, which allowed Nulsen to pay all interns a stipend for their work.

Making the program a paid internship each year, however, is key to recruiting minority students, says Nulsen.

“Without having the ability to pay students, it’s sometimes difficult to get underrepresented students in the program, because a lot of them have to work,” explains Nulsen, who hopes that steady supplemental funding in the future will help eliminate obstacles for such students.

Though both TGen and the Biodesign Institute boast several years’ worth of experience with summer internship programs, University of Arizona’s new BIO5 Institute is getting in on the action, too.

BIO5–which is set to officially open its facilities in December–has supported existing internship programs at the UA for the past five years, employing student researchers in laboratories across the UA campus.

The Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP), a nationally recognized internship program for undergraduates, is one UA program that works with BIO5 to place students in various summer research positions.

Because of BIO5’s multidisciplinary nature, undergraduate and graduate students placed through UBRP were able to work in a variety of labs, ranging from pharmacy to agriculture.

The UA Summer of Excellence program sponsored by the Honors College is another BIO5 supported effort. Plant sciences researcher Carolyn Napoli arranged 10-week life science internships for five participants from the Mesa Biotech Academy.

BIO5 has also teamed with Pima Community College to place PCC biotechnology students in paid positions with UA research laboratories investigating topics such as nutritional sciences, pharmacology and toxicology, and medicine.

Although BIO5 had a handful of high school interns this past summer, it is currently developing a full summer program for high school students.

“Up to this point, it’s been fairly informal,” says BIO5 Director Vicki Chandler of the university’s system of placing high school students with scientists in the laboratory. “It’s been teachers who know about students who are really excited and interested in science, and then we find them a match.”

This past summer, a partnership with San Miguel High School placed a small number of students in BIO5 research laboratories, and UBRP managed the placement of several other high school students into BIO5 labs, according to Chandler.

Though a more structured high school program is still in conceptual stages, Chandler says that she envisions a system similar to that of BIO5’s current college-level internship programs.

“I visualize a high school program much like the one we have with Pima,” says Chandler. “The schools would be responsible for identifying interested students and screening them, and then we’re responsible for finding the set of labs that students can work in.”

The program will likely team with established programs such as UBRP to provide students with a broader range of resources and a peer network of interns, says Norine Houtz, director of workforce development for BIO5.

“Students benefit from getting a real-world work experience, but also from getting experience in science.”

Houtz also emphasizes the importance of exposing students to potential career opportunities.

Says Houtz, “These types of internship programs can give kids a broader view of what science is all about and expand their horizons in terms of possibilities for their future.”