Internships in the College of Science and Health (CSH)—the Dean’s Undergraduate Fellowship and the DePaul/Rosalind Franklin Summer Research program—give students the best of two worlds: a paid summer job and real-world research experience.

It’s no surprise that they’re a big hit.

“The word has spread, absolutely,” says Erin Berkowitz, CSH director of academic advising.

Last year, 117 students applied for 12 positions with the Fellowship’s partner sites, which include the Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Brookfield Zoo, Argonne National Laboratory, Rush University Medical Center, and the Chicago Department of Public Health. (In 2014, the first year of the Fellowship, 13 students applied for eight spots). The equally sought-after DePaul/Rosalind Franklin program places 10 students in the medical school’s labs.

“The students appreciate the value of these internships, above and beyond their paycheck,” she adds. “Doing research in the real world helps students figure out their options, whether for a career or for graduate school. And they get to network with scientists in their field of study. It’s a big deal.”

H. Thorsten Lumbsch, the Robert A. Pritzker director of the Integrative Research Center within the Field Museum, echoes the same sentiment from an employer’s point of view:  “My research group focuses on the diversity and biogeography of lichens, so the interns spend a lot of time in the molecular lab determining DNA sequences and analyzing the data. The students get projects of their own—they’re not just performing a small task in some sort of assembly line—so they get first-hand experience of the day-to-day life of a scientist, while also gaining a better understanding of the complexity of scientific research. This kind of experience just can’t be had in a lecture or a class.”

Speaking of the program at Rosalind Franklin University, Phil Funk, CSH associate dean for external relations, agrees that the summer internships are an expansive experience: “Our students get to work in a highly competitive lab environment with tier-one, NIH-funded researchers. They get a preview of what their working lives could be like. And when it comes time to apply to a PhD program or to medical school, they have two letters of reference—that’s a real advantage.”

Work Readiness

Before the students start their internships, they learn the basic skills they’ll need to succeed in a job.

“We send qualified applicants to the proposed employment site to be interviewed—that process alone is great experience,” says Berkowitz. “Once a student is offered a spot, he or she goes through our orientation process to learn about job expectations, the importance of timeliness and professional demeanor, the best ways to work with a boss, and steps to take if there’s a conflict in the workplace.”

When on site, the interns are supervised by the scientist/mentor; Berkowitz makes site visits to ensure that the internship is a good experience for both the student and the site. The interns are required to blog regularly about their work:  What are they learning? What are they challenged by? In the fall, they present their research during the annual Science, Math, Technology Undergraduate Research Showcase.

Chloe Williams, a junior who’s majoring in chemistry (photo above), found that working with Lumbsch prepared her for biochemistry, as well as opening up her interests for further study: “Because I was extracting and sequencing DNA, I already understand what we’re doing in class now. Also, I found out that I like working with DNA, so somehow I’d like to incorporate DNA research in a PhD program as my next step. I just learned so much last summer!”

Ben Rohr, who’s majoring in environmental studies, appreciated getting “behind-the-scenes” as an intern in the Field Museum’s botanical archives: “I always wanted to know how a museum works, how things are done, where exhibits come from, and how they’re organized,” he says. Rohr worked with a huge collection of lichens and small mosses. “I photographed specimens, boxed and labeled them, and entered the information into a database that can be accessed by scientists everywhere. My work was part of a bigger effort of making them ready for display. It’s so cool to know that process!” 

A Two-Way Street

While the internships are valuable to students, the participating sites also benefit.

“The researchers at Rosalind Franklin appreciate the help,” says Funk. “And our students often go back as volunteers, graduate students, or lab technicians.”

Lumbsch affirms the mutual advantage: “When DePaul approached us with the idea of a student internship program, we agreed without hesitation. The collaboration fits perfectly with the Field Museum’s mission of explaining the world to the public.” At the same time, he says that “the students have been exceptional, each one highly interested, eager to learn, and a pleasure to work with. They bring a breeze of fresh air into the museum every summer!”

For more information, contact Erin Berkowitz  (773-325-7918) or  Phil Funk (773- 325-8479).