NEI summer intern program experiences
From a summer intern an eye-opening experience
By Andrew Zureick, Dartmouth College Class of 2013
The crowded Metro train screeched to a stop. “Medical Center, red line to Shady Grove,” the driver announced over the loudspeaker. I threw my backpack over my shoulder, climbed the monstrous escalator, and walked out into the almost unbearable summer heat toward the entrance to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. After having my badge scanned at the front gate, I made my way to the National Eye Institute in Building 10, NIH’s Clinical Center. I boarded a packed elevator, rode up to the tenth floor, and headed down the long hallway to my laboratory, the doors of which were decorated with postcards from all over the world and Biosafety Level 2 signs.
Dr. Igal Gery stood outside the lab waving and smiling. Though nervous and intimidated by the radioactive materials warnings at first, I continued into the lab and met my new co-workers. Before I knew it, Barbara Vistica, our lab technician and microbiologist, was explaining the lab’s research. We had spoken over the phone a few months earlier, so I remembered words like “uveitis” and “transgenic mice,” but most of what she said went over my head.
After I set up my new desk and computer, Dr. Gery gave me a tour of the Laboratory of Immunology, which spanned most of the hall. The essentials—the –80° C freezer, the bathroom, the many elevators, the copy machine, etc.—were just as important as knowing where the pipette tips and 1.5-milliliter tubes were stored. Later I was inundated with a stack of articles from the Journal of Immunology. And Dr. Gery lent me an immunobiology textbook to help me catch up on the field.
During my first two weeks, I trained with Barbara and Dr. Cuiyan “Yan” Tan, a postdoctoral fellow, and read articles on PubMed (based in NIH’s National Library of Medicine). I still felt overwhelmed, but Dr. Gery sat down with me often to answer my questions. My lab experience so far had been limited to high school coursework and a biology class at Dartmouth, so Barbara and Yan supervised me until I felt comfortable with performing assays and other techniques.
By the third week I felt comfortable working by myself and interacting with researchers in and out of the lab. The casual dress code and classical radio station that filled the lab with music helped me relax. Soon I began planning my project for the summer intern poster day scheduled for early August. I decided to build off a study that Yan had submitted for publication just prior to my arrival. It focused on patterns of cytokine production by T helper 9 cells and their effects on inflammation of the eye. Running assays and performing experiments using real-time polymerase chain reaction were challenging tasks for a newbie like me, but I began to see a general pattern that formed the basis of my upcoming presentation. I took great care in always vortexing tubes and withdrawing correct amounts of whatever diluent or buffer solution I worked with. The seven-hour experiments were grueling at first, but I soon became accustomed to the pace.
I attended many of OITE’s information sessions for summer interns; one was on designing posters and another on giving scientific presentations. Dr. Gery read through drafts and coached me on how to express my research concisely and accurately. Both he and Barbara helped me anticipate questions I might be asked.
Finally, poster day came. The Natcher Building’s hallways and atriums were packed with parents, students, researchers, and doctors who had come to see the hundreds of posters. Wearing a blazer with my new NEI pin and carrying my poster in a large tube, I was filled with indescribable energy as I entered the building. I visited many of my friends’ posters before setting up mine for the afternoon session. My presentation went well and, despite the fatigue of talking for two hours to the people walking by, I felt very satisfied to have completed my first research experience.
I also had many opportunities to learn at NIH outside the lab. The OITE program coordinator explained that high school and college students come to the NIH not only to gain work experience, but also to learn, to have fun, and to make the most of Bethesda. Dr. Gery knew this and was flexible, often exclaiming, “Work, work, work! Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!” I joined a summer interns journal club on hormones in disease and development, attended many seminars on topics as diverse as stem cells and optoelectronics, and went to OITE’s huge fair that featured representatives and admissions officers from more than 100 medical schools and graduate programs.
My time at NIH was rewarding in part because of the many scientific techniques I picked up, but mainly because of the people I met. NIH teems with scientists who have a passion I hope to develop. Spending a summer learning from them helped me to understand both the difficulty and the beauty of the scientific process.
This essay is adapted with permission from one that appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Dartmouth Medicine magazine. Zureick, a sophomore at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., hails from Bloomfield Hills, Mich.