How can I make the most out of a science internship?
September 3, 2010 12:34 AM   Subscribe

How can I get the most out of my science internship?

Over the Antipodean Summer I'll be working in a functional genomics lab at a pretty major research hub. It'll be my first experience of a professional rather than purely academic scientific environment. What will be expected of me? How can I make the best impression? All advice highly appreciated!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Work & Money (7 answers total)
It would help to know what your background is. Are you an undergrad student, doing a summer internship? A PhD student using the summer to get a taste of industry? Someone thinking of going back to school for a graduate degree? That'll help determine what you want and need to get out of this experience.

A general tip for dealing with smart, very busy people is to ask intelligent questions. If you need info on a technique, don't show up and say "I don't know what to do". Say "I looked up this technique, but I found three different options for step 2 - do you have any experience with this?" That's not to say that you should waste a week researching things, just that you should perform due diligence.
posted by chrisamiller at 5:47 AM on September 3, 2010

Do you know exactly who you'll be working with? You can do a literature search to find the major recent papers published by the group you'll be working with. Reading these papers before you get there will be great preparation for your work and will definitely make a good impression. A summer's not a long time, so anything you can do to prep beforehand will be worthwhile.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 7:47 AM on September 3, 2010

Along with reading papers, contacting your mentor in advance to start getting a feel for the project you'll be working on, and asking them what background reading might be useful to prepare, could be very useful. They could have a project proposal, grant application, draft report or lab-specific protocol that they could send you to help you start getting a feel for what you'll be doing. Also, 2nding Chrisamiller that some more about your background would be useful.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:00 AM on September 3, 2010

Asking smart questions about what you will be doing is important, but finding out what the other people in your group are doing and what other people are doing in the facility is vital networking. Get to know people over lunch or what not and ask to see their labs. Talk about their problems with them. These perspectives will not only inform your own work (lab x has a different approach to a similar problem, what if we...), and help with theirs, but these contacts can be invaluable for your future career.

Read widely. Ask to be put on the journal distribution lists (we don't do this for students generally unless they ask). Keep up to date with the facilities on-line subscriptions. You should at least be regularly reading the abstracts for half a dozen journals every month.

When you have problems: 0) stop. Don't get into further trouble. Bulling through usually just makes a bad situation worse. 1) try to think it through yourself and work up a solution. Don't take more than a few hours to do this, a day at maximum. 2) Present the problem as thoroughly as possible to your supervisor. Don't shade what happened, take responsibility if necessary (I respect interns and students that are willing to admit their own mistakes more than those that play footsie with the truth). 3) Explain your solution. These three steps are what all of my best new hires have done. Do not continue hoping things will get better. Don't hide problems from your supervisor; if you think something is wrong, it's better to ask and learn than to be correct and waste time continuing.

Finally, keep in touch afterwords. If we're happy with your time with us, we're more than happy to write a recommendation, bump you to the head of the line for another term, or help you with a job search. It's a bit surprising to me how few students take advantage of this.
posted by bonehead at 9:57 AM on September 3, 2010

Oh, and if you can join a journal reading/review club. If there isn't one, consider starting one.
posted by bonehead at 9:59 AM on September 3, 2010

I am going to slightly disagree with a few of the other comments above: re-read your textbook before your read papers!

Time and time again I see student's eyes glaze over when they trawl through journal articles. You need to focus more on techniques and skills you will learn rather than the research impact of your project. At this stage (assuming you are an Australian undergraduate student), those sort of concerns are above your payscale and can be a distraction.

You need to get experienced, reading a stack of papers is one thing, but it will all mean zip if you can run a gel or do sterile technique properly. I am a much happier supervisor when my student can equip him/herself properly in the lab, rather than regurgitate previously published literature. In the end, it is these things that go on a CV, not the number of papers you have read.

Of course, don't be bloody minded about it. Read enough to get a feel for your project, and the aims you (read: your supervisor) want to achieve. but perhaps 75-80% of your energy should be spent learning the protocols, understanding why a particular experiment is to be performed and having a go on as many shiny machines as you can.

Have fun!
posted by TheOtherGuy at 11:47 AM on September 3, 2010

of course, that should read "If you can't run a gel.."
posted by TheOtherGuy at 3:42 PM on September 3, 2010

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