Julie Glowacki, PhD, knows firsthand how powerful and impactful a summer internship experience can be for a young person. When she was in tenth grade, she received a scholarship from the National Cancer Institute to work in a research lab at Brandeis University
“As an inner-city kid, my summer experience as a tenth grader working in a research lab changed my life,” she says.
This summer, through the BRI’s 2017 Summer Undergraduate Research Internship Program, 16 students from across the country received a similar opportunity. Glowacki, a senior scientist and director of the Brigham’s Skeletal Biology Program, was one of this year’s mentors.
The BRI’s program pairs promising science students with lead biomedical investigators. The program began last year as a pilot within the Musculoskeletal Center and was expanded this year to include 16 labs from four research centers: Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease (CVDM), Infectious and Immunologic Diseases (IID), Musculoskeletal and Neurosciences. Qualified undergraduate students from across the nation came to the Brigham for 10weeks to conduct biomedical research and work on an assigned project, as well as attend social lunches and career development talks by prominent members of the BWH community. More than 100 students applied for the 16 slots.
This program offers several perks for both interns and PIs alike. The BRI provides all the administrative support for hiring and “onboarding” qualified interns, taking care of the paperwork and planning that can slow down the process of bringing summer interns into the lab. The BRI also provides a stiped of $2,500 for each student, sparing the labs this expense.
Glowacki, former co-chair of the BRI Musculoskeletal Research Center and now a member of the BRI Research Oversight Committee, notes that junior faculty especially benefit from participating in the BRI’s internship program, as it can help attract recognition to the lab while also helping support the next generation of researchers.
Jessica Whited, PhD, a junior faculty member in the Musculoskeletal Research Center, agrees. “I’d urge other PIs to think back to when you were 20 and how you jumpstarted your scientific career. With the BRI providing the student stipends and taking care of the onboarding process, the PI and other researchers in the lab are enabled to give back and help students develop professionally and intellectually through immersive research programs like this.”
This year’s cohort of interns say they have gained a tremendous amount of insight from their time in the program. Working with Glowacki, Simon Luu, an undergraduate from Lehigh University, studied the mechanisms by which vitamin D stimulates osteoblast stem cells to become osteoblasts. Through lab exercises on mammalian cell culture, gene expression analysis and histology, Luu not only grew his technical benchwork skills but also learned to think more scientifically.
“With the guidance of Dr. Glowacki, I gained the mindset of a true researcher when addressing questions in my independent research project,” he said. “The work I did in the lab truly felt like my own, and it was gratifying to feel that I made real, scientific contributions.”
In Whited’s lab, a University of Florida student named Aaron Sandoval learned an important lesson through his research on the regeneration of limbs in salamanders. “Being involved in the lab’s paper publication process was an insightful experience. I was tasked with conducting a set of experiments for the paper and quantifying the data. It was an immense amount of work and results did not turn out as I hoped—but from that I realized that disappointment can be typical in science, and I’ve learned to grow from the experience,” he said.
Over in the CDVM Research Center, Dan Freeman, a student from Clemson University, studied the effect of a long non-coding RNA in coronary artery disease. He also had the opportunity to shadow his principal investigator, cardiovascular medicine specialist Mark Feinberg, MD, in a clinical context. “Going from studying mice with coronary artery disease in the lab to seeing patients with the same cardiovascular conditions gave my research significance,” said Freeman. “Understanding the clinical relevance and greater context of what I was doing in the lab showed me that my work was making an impact.”
Feinberg also enjoyed the experience of mentoring Freeman. “It is gratifying to inspire an interest in students for biomedical research, giving them an appreciation of discovery research at the bench,” he said. “As a teaching hospital, it is part of our mission to educate. It is important to interface with universities that do not have a relationship with academic medical centers such as BWH to bring clinically relevant research opportunities to all students.”
The BRI is already beginning to make plans for the program for next summer. PIs who are interested in participating in the BRI’s Undergraduate Internship Program for Summer 2018 should submit a summary of their lab’s research to Trey Toombs, PhD, BRI program manager.