Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Should high school and undergraduate students do internships in STEM?

Research internships for high school or undergraduate students can be an invaluable source of experience that will help propel the students further into or away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). At the least, the student will get an idea of whether STEM is something that they want to continue pursuing and in what way. Laboratory research is not for everyone, so knowing this for yourself is an important step in finding your way into a STEM career or out of it. There is more to STEM than laboratory research. 

STEM careers are often presented as the answer to all of society's problems, but that is certainly not the case. Having worked with lawyers, teachers, social commentators, journalists, and community activists on various matters of society and justice, I have a deep appreciation for people who have skill sets that are derived from professions that are not in STEM. How many presidents and international ambassadors who prevented nuclear war had a career in STEM?

My own career in STEM began with internships at the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine. The high school that I attended had a class that required you to volunteer in a STEM laboratory. I did an internship in the laboratory of Dr. Sue A. Ingles, Ph.D., and then that of Dr. Suraiya Rasheed, Ph.D. In both cases, I learned a lot about science, the process of science, laboratory research, how boring it could be, how exciting it could be, and what it takes to become a scientist. 

Aside from learning the "how to's" of science, an internship exposes you to great thinkers who provide valuable advice, future career connections, and funny stories to tell. During an internship, you may be able to hear different scientists within the department present their work. You learn about their passion -- and their complaints. You realize that there are many types of jobs within STEM fields, so you get a better idea of which ones you want to pursue. 

One of the highlights of my time at USC was the interaction that my fellow interns and I had with researchers outside of the laboratory. Several times a week, we ran into Dr. Samuel Bessman, M.D., and his colleagues in the lunch room. Dr. Bessman invented the first artificial pancreas and his license plate was the word "INSULIN." He was quite a character. "What do you want to be IF you grew up?" he would ask each new intern that he met. He would then explain that while he was growing up, there was a good chance of being drafted into World War II. So back then, he and his friends weren't sure that they would live to pursue a career. Dr. Bessman would ask us questions about our research, explain to us what we didn't understand, and encourage us to learn more. He would tell us about his fencing days in college, the poetry class that he taught at the medical school, and give a history lesson from time to time. He struck me as someone who spent a lot of time thinking about life, perhaps because he was also a poet. In many ways, those lunches with "Sam" would shape the kind of scholar that I would seek to become. What the interns appreciated most was that he treated us not as clueless high school students, but as people who would one day become bona fide scientists. He didn't have to do that, but he did. And it has shaped how I seek to mentor students today.

So, there is more to learn from an internship in STEM than just knowledge about a subject.