Behind every NICHD investigator is a team of students and trainees, learning the ropes one experiment at a time. For them, a summer internship or postdoctoral fellowship may be the turning point that gives direction and momentum to their future careers in science. And for many investigators, the responsibility of training the next generation of scientists is as important as making their next discovery.
The NICHD has a strong commitment to supporting training, education, and career development opportunities at grantee institutions and on the NIH campus, in Bethesda, Maryland. Over the years, the Institute has contributed to the professional development of thousands of young researchers.
Take for instance, 19-year-old Evan Harris, a recent summer intern at the NICHD and a junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Evan spent 2 months working in an NICHD lab, helping to develop a potential model to study effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. His internship experience taught him that perseverance is as essential as curiosity in science. He learned to fail—early and often—before succeeding with a discovery.
“Failure is a learning process,” Harris said. “Most problems have more than one solution. I find it really enjoyable to keep working at it.”
Harris was one of 80 interns chosen competitively by the NICHD to learn hands-on alongside scientists in a lab environment. He applied through the NIH Summer Internship Program in Biomedical Research. The NIH receives thousands of applications for the summer positions, said Brenda R. Hanning, deputy director of liaison and training in the NICHD’s Division of Intramural Research. About 1,000 are chosen across NIH.
“Our scientists love what they do,” Hanning said. “What better way to motivate the next generation than to share their passion about their work directly with students?”
As an intern in the Section on Endocrinology and Genetics, Harris worked directly with his mentor Dr. Meg Keil, Associate Director of Nursing and Protocol Navigation in the Office of the Clinical Director, assisting with experiments to evaluate differences in gene expression in the brain. They were particularly interested in the brain’s responses in moments of fear or anxiety. Evan said that he read research papers written by his mentor before starting the internship, with some anxiety of his own that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the work.
“I came in expecting to struggle. I thought it would be overwhelming, but everyone was so willing to help. I’ve never been told ‘No’ and that’s in 8 weeks of asking a lot of questions,” he said. “As a summer student, you are here to learn. And in 8 weeks, you learn a lot.”
Harris credits Dr. Keil for being willing to answer his many questions and for taking the time to explain lab procedures and techniques.
Dr. Keil also felt positively about the mentoring experience.
“Evan’s zeal for learning was always apparent, and he readily accepted challenges,” she said. One of those challenges was to present his research before a group of seasoned scientists at NICHD. “It was an impressive accomplishment for a summer student! I am grateful for the Summer Internship Program and the opportunities it provides for students, as well as the chance it provides me to serve as a mentor and share my enthusiasm for science.”
Harris developed an interest in science as a high school student in nearby Olney, Maryland. He thrived in an Advanced Placement biology class and was motivated to learn more about biomedical research after watching several family members and friends battle aggressive cancers.
“I have a drive to pursue science and research so that other people don’t have to go through the agony of loss,” he said.
The biggest lesson he learned this summer is that the path to scientific discovery requires persistence: “I’ve learned that things in the lab are going to go wrong constantly,” he said.
“You have to be patient, flexible, and willing to try new ways to reach your end goal.”
Through the Summer Internship Program and other training opportunities, the NICHD is accomplishing end goals of its own—namely, to attract more young people to careers in research and to equip them with the skills to succeed.
The application for the NIH’s 2015 Summer Internship Program will become available in mid-November. Interested students should visit http://www.training.nih.gov and email Summer_Postbac_Questions@mail.nih.gov with questions.
In addition to the Summer Internship Program, the NICHD offers a range of other training opportunities for individuals at various career stages, including pre- and postdoctoral research fellowships, clinical fellowships, career development awards, and more. For a complete list and details, visit NICHD’s training, education, and career development webpage.
Originally Posted: September 23, 2014