For many students, both high school and university, summer is often one of the best times of the year to complete a research internship. A research internship can be the perfect opportunity to gain relevant work experience, develop or grow skills, make lasting connections with those in your field, and much more. This summer in the Dunn Lab, we had the opportunity to host two summer interns: Clara Parsons, a rising sophomore from Georgetown University on the pre-med track, and Krista Caasi, a high-school senior from Princeton Day School. Through this blog post, they hope to give those thinking about a research internship some tips to make the most out of their time in the lab.
1. Reach out to labs that are researching something you are genuinely interested in.
Take the time to research each lab’s aims, current studies, publications, and team members. By simply browsing a website, you can learn important things about the team and the work they do. Finding a lab that studies something you are passionate about can allow you to deepen a prior interest, develop your skills and knowledge in a field you might work in later, and connect to the material. When reaching out to a lab’s principal investigator or “PI” to inquire about the possibility of joining their lab, try to portray this genuine interest. It will help set you apart from other candidates. When we were looking for internships, we took the time to explore every lab on the Boston Children’s Hospital website, MGH Psychiatry department, and many other places to try and find the right fit.
2. Make the most of your experience.
As an intern, you are at the lab to assist with the team’s research, but also to grow as a person and working professional. When you start your internship, schedule a meeting with your PI to share your goals for your internship and also ask what will be expected of you in return. Building these relationships is incredibly important, especially if you want to do future work in the field. Furthermore, throughout your internship, try your best to seize each opportunity that crosses your path because every experience you have can be an opportunity for growth. For us, that was attending weekly grand rounds and an undergraduate seminar to hear from other researchers about their work and learn about our options for our futures. We were able to hear from panels of grad students, faculty at Harvard, and many others with so much wisdom to share.
3. Ask every single question that you have (yes, seriously).
As students, we are all naturally extremely curious, and inquisitive learners; these traits combine perfectly to make the recipe for a genuine enjoyment of research and a successful internship. Finding a lab that fosters a learning environment and encourages your question-asking can help your learning process. Not only will you expand your learning, but your engagement and connection with the research will shine through your conversations, writing, and every task you perform. So even though you might at times feel hesitant, be bold and ask away.
4. Learn tasks your future student self will thank you for.
Both of us are very early on in our academic careers and know that there is much to come in courses that focus on research, writing, and science. Starting an internship in research can be scary if you are unfamiliar with the layout of Google Scholar or PubMed, the seemingly complex language used by scientists, and having daily interactions with experts in the field. Recognizing that you are new to the field and embracing constructive feedback will be necessary for your internship. You will become all too familiar with revising, editing, and discussing your research - something you will be grateful for throughout your future academic career, when these skills will come in handy for medical school applications and other opportunities.
5. Be the most professional version of yourself.
Although you are a student and not a full-time employee, and may be technically on summer vacation, push yourself to act as though you are a full-time salaried employee. Showing up and working when you are supposed to will allow you more time to work on your projects and connect with coworkers. Enjoy your morning commute, waking up with an extra ten minutes to put in a little more effort into getting ready, and carrying yourself in all the ways you think a “real” adult would. You’ll become familiar with the traditional 9-5 lifestyle, so when you do have a career one day, you’re not surprised by what it entails.
6. Learn to navigate the endless resources.
Working in a lab affiliated with a hospital or academic institution usually comes with access to endless resources. Whatever resources your school or internship offers you, use them! Harvard’s databases and librarians have been essential to working in the Dunn Lab. It may be difficult to navigate a database at first, but reference librarians are there to help you streamline your research process. Taking the effort to learn from them is well worth it and will make your research that much more thorough. Google or Google Scholar shouldn’t be the only search engines you use.
7. Never be afraid to check-in and ask for help.
Labs are teams for a reason. As we’ve learned, research can and should be done in a very collaborative environment. In these settings, it is important to make sure every member is on the same page. When you start an internship, you might feel like you know nothing compared to others in the lab (we definitely did!). Run with something as far as you can until you think you might need assistance. Advocating for yourself will not only make your work more achievable, but may also lead to learning something brand-new. Asking for help will also demonstrate your curiosity and enthusiasm for the lab’s work, which is always appreciated by your lab teammates. Sometimes the greatest learning experiences come from asking for help.
8. Explore the city where you’re working.
Wherever your internship is, it will likely have a distinct culture surrounding it, so have fun exploring the place. We got the chance to explore Harvard’s Longwood campus and the awesome city of Boston. If you are working at a university-affiliated organization, we recommend exploring the campus or hospital and if you are a high school student maybe even take a tour. We learned where the best coffee and ice cream places are near work, and our taste buds are very thankful for that.
9. Get to know all your lab members/co-workers.
Meeting one-on-one with each lab member can be a fascinating way to learn about others’ academic journeys and research interests. Ask each member what advice they’d give to a senior applying to college or a young college student. It can give you insight into life after college, graduate school, and more. Asking a coworker to carve out time in their schedules to meet with you may be intimidating at first, so start talking to people close to your age, like other high school or undergraduate students. Connecting with your teammates ensures that they remember you and that you are leaving your mark on the lab. Plus, non-work banter is fun; it’s a good break from whatever you’re working on. Sharing pictures of our animals has become a routine lab bonding activity - it’s hard to be upset when you’re looking at a cute dog or cat photo!
10. Be open-minded to whatever comes your way.
Keep a positive mindset and approach each task that comes to your plate with enthusiasm. We learned more about coding in R Studio, some amazing new knowledge on planned communities in Australia, Tooth Fairy Traditions from all around the world, and so much more. The little surprises you find each day may be some of the best moments during your internship. Being open to unexpected opportunities can open your eyes to things you never thought you’d be interested in doing.
We hope these tips have been helpful to those thinking about how a research internship could benefit them. This has been such an amazing summer for both of us and we hope that you learn as much as we have!