Academic research internships are for grad students too

Cell migration assays

Before enrolling in the PhD program in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins, I didn’t know that academic internships were available for graduate students. When I was an undergraduate, I spent one summer working at a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at Iowa State University. REU programs are paid research internships that are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and hosted by universities throughout the country, and they are well-advertised by academic advisors. They provide great opportunities for undergraduate students to see what full-time research in an academic setting is like before committing to graduate school. My undergraduate research experiences were instrumental as I made the decision to apply to PhD programs.

However, I didn’t realize that similar opportunities would be available once I’d entered grad school. I was very excited to learn that INBT offers an International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program that is open to both graduate and undergraduate students. This program offers an incredible opportunity to work internationally. By partnering with the Inter-University MicroElectronics Centre (IMEC) in Leuven, Belgium, INBT gives students the chance to work in IMECs microfabrication facilities to develop biomedical devices. They have incredible fabrication facilities at IMEC, and students traveling there learn a lot about how microelectronics manufacturing techniques can be translated to answer biological questions.

Leuven pic-web

In July and August of 2013, I visited IMEC to work on using new imaging techniques to study cell migration. We are trying to make cell motility studies easy, affordable, and high-throughput. Time-lapse motility experiments are typically limited to labs focused on cell motility because they require expensive microscopes and specialized equipment. Therefore, not every lab that cultures cells can perform these experiments, even though tests of cell motility can tell researchers a lot about other cellular behavior.

At IMEC, I worked on using an affordable imager that could be placed directly in cell culture incubators to study cells in wound healing, random motility, microcontact printing migration, and microchannel migration assays. We had some promising early results, and our collaboration is continuing. The internship provided me exposure to techniques I wouldn’t have otherwise known about, and I learned a lot about building collaborations with other researchers.

Colin Paul is a fourth-year PhD student in the laboratory of Konstantinos Konstantopoulos in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Institute for NanoBioTechnology.