NEI summer interns reap hands-on lab experience, praise mentors

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Clare McLaughlin standing between her mentors, Neyal Ammary-Risch (L) and Kathryn DeMott (R)

“Hold the door,” I yell as the elevator door slowly seals off. A big hand intercepts the closing doors, as I slip through the crack.

“What floor?” asks a man, holding the hand of a little boy.

“Ten,” I respond as I collect the papers tucked precariously under my arm.

“Do you work here?” the man questions with amused concern in his voice. I wonder if I should be offended but brush it off and reply, “For the summer, yes. I’m a summer intern working in the communications office for the National Eye Institute here at NIH.”

They both look at me with grins on their faces as if they don’t believe me. “You look so young. How old are you?” the man asks as the elevator stops and four doctors in lab coats file in, forcing me to get a closer look at my inquisitors.

“I’m eighteen. I’m a sophomore at American University,” I respond.

Disbelief is probably a reasonable reaction from a father and son who have traveled to see world-renowned researchers, and find themselves in an elevator with me, a young woman barely taller than a child, who claims she works here. But I am one of more than 40 interns at NEI here for the summer.

All but me are working with NEI scientists in their labs. I worked last summer in Dr. Chi Chao Chan’s lab, so I understand the immense learning experience that comes from having such an opportunity. I met with a few fellow interns, and their appreciation for the NIH Summer Internship Program is palpable.

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Mohammad Yazadine

First-time intern, Mohammad Yazadine, who attends Stony Brook University School of Medicine, was still trying to wrap his head around his luck in ending up here, in the lab of Dr. Catherine Cukras. “During my undergrad years I used to look at databases and see ‘NIH funded.’ Now I’m here at the hub of all medical research! It gives me chills, it’s so surreal…I’m just lucky enough to be here,” he said, describing what this opportunity meant.

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Siqi Chen

For Siqi Chen, a student at Johns Hopkins University, working for a third summer in the lab of Igal Gery, Ph.D., the gratitude still hasn’t worn off. “Looking at how competitive the program is and how many people don’t get in, I can’t help but be grateful. I want to gain as much as possible because these scientists have taken the time to help me understand research. I want them to know their time and money are well placed.”

Dr. Brian Brooks, chief of the Unit of Genetic and Developmental Eye Disease has a similar view, though from a different perspective. He has been a mentor with the program for 12 years and hopes that students will focus more on the experience than on getting results. “They’re only here for the summer. I want them to gain exposure and give them an experience of mastering a technique. If we get useable data that’s always a plus,” he said.

From developing zebra fish mutants to learning how to sequence DNA, many of the interns praised the experience at NEI for giving them exposure to the techniques, and equipment that they otherwise wouldn’t see until much later in their careers. Jenny Yoon, a University of Rochester student, working in the lab of Dr. T. Michael Redmond was excited to work with high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), a technique she, up to that point, had only read about in textbooks.

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Rebecca Xi

“Many of these interns come in with little to no lab experience,” explained Summer Intern Program Coordinator Dr. Cesar Perez-Gonzalez. “For researchers that have spent years in the lab it may not be a big deal, but to these interns it means the world. If we can offer them that, it’s a great feeling.”

The impact and benefits of the internship program are felt in a myriad of ways. For some, like Rebecca Xi, a student at the University of Maryland who has spent numerous summers in Dr. Brooks’ lab, it means being given the chance to become a published author before going into medical school.

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Juliet Hartford

For others, like Juliet Hartford, a medical student at Columbia University working alongside Dr. Emily Chew, it means getting hands-on experience in a cutting-edge clinical setting and getting one step closer to her dream of becoming an ophthalmologist.

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Brianna Stroud-Williams

For Brianna Stroud-Williams, a student at Gallaudet University, working in the Flow Cytometry Core Facility, the program has opened doors, allowing her to build a network with mentors and other scientists. For many others, it’s been an unforgettable summer simply getting a glimpse at the inner workings of such a prestigious and public research institution.

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Melissa Lester

Melissa Lester, a medical student at Temple University, said that her experience in the lab of Dr. Robert Nussenblatt has been “eye-opening!” As Lester explained, “I was originally interested in clinical research but was not sure how both treating patients and completing clinical protocols could be performed by a clinician alone. Now that I understand how clinicians integrate research with patient care, my interest in clinical research has turned into a career goal.”

The students’ mentors at NEI praise the rewards they reap from the program as well.

“Perhaps the most rewarding thing is that the investment that we make in their education will continue to yield benefits for a long time,” said four-year mentor Rafael Villasmil, manager and operator of the Flow Cytometry Core facility.

Dr. Brooks said he remembers doing his own research internship in high school and how important it felt to prove himself in a lab environment. He sees the same sense of excitement and accomplishment among the NEI interns.

“The summer interns remind me of why I’m here in the first place. They keep us young. It’s good to have new blood to challenge us,” he said.

The elevator has cleared out and it’s just me, the man and his son, once again. As the elevator slowly creeps to the next floor the man begins to tell his story.

“My son is here undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. We’ve been coming back to NIH for the past year and the progress we’ve seen has been amazing. You should be really proud to work here. They’ve made a huge difference in my son’s life”

We reached the 10th floor and went our separate ways.

I never learned their names or found out where they were from, but the father’s words have stuck with me. It’s inspiring to know I am in the company of people who work hard to make a difference in another person’s life—a patient who was thought to have an untreatable tumor or a summer intern taking some of their first career steps in the field of science. This internship has allowed me to explore vision science at great depths but has also given me a greater appreciation for the daily inspiration that surrounds me at work.

By NEI communications summer intern, Clare McLaughlin

The NIH is dedicated to building a diverse community in its training and employment programs. HHS, NIH, and NEI are Equal Opportunity Employers.

Last updated: June 28, 2019