Gaining perspective from an international research internship

I was fortunate enough to able to complete an internship abroad during my undergraduate career. Though I was extremely excited to begin work at a German university in Berlin, I was also very apprehensive about the huge transition I would have to make. Not only was I living in a new country speaking a relatively uncomfortable language, but it was also my first laboratory experience in the side of materials science, which so often overlaps with chemistry. Through my time in Berlin, I learned about German culture, conducting science abroad, and I got a healthy dose of chemistry.

Luisa Russell during her internship.

Luisa Russell during her internship.

My lab work in Germany involved the synthesis and functionalization of gold nanospheres and nanorods for the ultimate goal of the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis using hyperbranched polyglycerol. Though I worked under an older graduate student and had to start essentially from the beginning due to my relative lack of chemistry lab training, my fellow interns and I were given many opportunities to expand on our laboratory skills, and I came to be independent in both synthesis and in data collection and analysis for a variety of nanoparticles. Though we mainly worked with gold, we also explored more nontraditional nanomaterials including graphene and nanodiamonds through work my mentor was doing in collaboration with other groups, giving me a broad experience in nanotechnology.

In addition, doing my internship abroad rather than at another university in the United States gave me a new perspective on science as an international endeavor. Though lab books, conversation, and notes were in German, everything with a larger audience was conducted in English, from guest lecturers to group meeting presentations to papers written for publication in journals. While this made me a little more comfortable given my barely conversational German, it also struck me how my peers were obligated to be conversant in English to be part of the international science community, as well as a contributing part of their own local groups. This helped me understand the unique challenges faced by international scientists, and I look forward to continuing work with international collaborators in the future.

My internship, though it started out slow, ended up being an invaluable experience for my current work. It was a great way to get an in depth and low commitment experience with an aspect of lab work in materials science that I hadn’t previously been familiar with, and inspired me to continue working in this field. My work in the Searson Group centers around nanoparticle synthesis as applied to quantum dots, and my experience both as a member of a chemistry lab and as a semi-independent synthesizer of nanoparticles gave me an advantage in learning to navigate my way around the lab and the relatively difficult protocols applied in the synthesis of quantum dots. While it did break up the span of time over which I could do longer term research, ultimately the opportunity to explore a variety of aspects of materials science in a hands-on way was extremely valuable, and helped to inform my future research interests.

Luisa Russell is a second-year PhD candidate in the materials science department working on hybrid multifunctional nanoparticles in Peter Searson’s research group.

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.

High school research internships keep skills fresh

For most teenagers, finding a summer job is almost a rite of passage into adulthood. It’s a chance to learn responsibility and time management and practice how to get along with coworkers. It also helps earn money for college or fun. A group of specially selected teens, however, were able to take the concept of the summer job a step further as summer research scholars in Johns Hopkins University laboratories.

High schooler Christopher Miller with his graduate student mentor Hoku West-Foyle. (Photo by Mary Spiro)

High schooler Christopher Miller with his graduate student mentor Hoku West-Foyle. (Photo by Mary Spiro)

The Summer Academic Research Experience (SARE) program, an opportunity funded in part by Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology and the School of Medicine, trains students from “disadvantaged” homes throughout the state. Some students may have a parent in prison or struggling with addiction. Others may face extreme financial hardship or even have been homeless.

SARE scholars have a chance to overcome obstacles to academic success by working in academia under the guidance of a mentor. They improve their writing and mathematics skills through tutoring. And they learn how to keep good laboratory records, how to follow safety protocols, and how to make a professional presentation.

“This is way better than flipping burgers,” exclaimed Stephanie Keyaka, as she prepared an image of a Western Blot performed on Drosophila eye genes. Keyaka, a tenth grader from The SEED School of Maryland, the state’s only public boarding school. She studied rhodopsin in the eyes of flies in the lab of professor Craig Montell during the summer of 2012.

SARE, launched in 2009 through a collaboration between INBT and School of Medicine cell biology associate professor Doug Robinson, recruits students from the private nonprofit Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore, from The SEED School, and now also from The Crossroads School, operated by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation. While the partnership with Boys Hope Girls Hope has been in place from the beginning, working with The SEED School and The Crossroads School has expanded the potential pool of qualified and interested applicants. “Expanding the applicant pool makes the program more competitive, which is a worthwhile experience—to have to compete for something,” Robinson said.

During their time at Hopkins, each SARE scholar focuses on a mini research project that advances the larger goals of the lab where they are placed. No prior laboratory work is expected, and the learning curve is steep. But with mentoring from graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the scholars find their way. At the end of the summer, the scholars present their findings in a poster session for their peers, faculty and staff.

“At the beginning of the summer, I didn’t know what the heck I was talking about, but now I get it!” laughed Christopher Miller, a tenth grader from The SEED School. Miller studied the motor protein myosin in the Robinson lab.

Miller’s mentor, cell biology doctoral student Hoku West-Foyle, said working with students during the summer helps to re-energize the lab. “At first, it is a bit of extra work, but it gives you teaching experience, and when you are explaining your project to other people, it helps to reinforce why the larger research question matters. It fires you up to work harder,” West-Foyle said.

Shaolin Holloman, an eleventh grader at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Girls Hope scholar, worked in the cell biology lab of professor Carolyn Machamer. Her project sought to understand why the SARS coronavirus localizes to the Golgi apparatus of the cell.

“I liked the work experience because we actually got to do hands-on experiments,” said Hollomon, who hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon. “The biggest challenge for me was to keep up with my weekly essays, my summer reading and the work in the lab.”

Robinson hopes the program can become self-sustaining and even scalable to accept more students. “We are at a juncture where we are seeking additional funding, so we are systematically assessing our impact,” Robinson said. One would judge that the SARE program’s impact is significant, since all five alumni who have graduated from high school, or who will do so this spring, have gone on to university, Robinson reported. Two students have declared biology as their major and the other three still in high school are interested in science, technology, mathematics or health-related disciplines. Five new scholars will join SARE this summer.

Khalek Kirkland, The SEED School headmaster said summer internships of this kind are important to help keep students motivated and on track academically. “We do believe in the ‘summer brain drain,’ in that students do lose something over the summer,” Kirkland explained. “Doug and I are in talks about writing a grant together to expand the program not only to SEED School students, but to additional students as well.”

Anyone with interest in supporting the efforts of the SARE program can contact Douglas Robinson via email a

Story by Mary Spiro

More on the SARE program:

Lab coats are summer gear for high school researchers 

2013 summer nano-bio research interns get to work

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology welcomes its summer 2013 research interns. Students arrived from universities from across the nation to conduct 10 weeks of research in INBT sponsored laboratories. Interns are supported by the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates  program through INBT and receive housing and a stipend during their tenure at Hopkins. At the end of their research project, students will present posters describing their work with other Hopkins students in a university-wide poster session.

This year’s students include:

Shantel Angstadt is from Elizabethtown College. She is working in the cell biology laboratory of Doug Robinson at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Hamsa Gowda is from UMBC. She is working in the materials science and engineering laboratory of Peter Searson at the Whiting School of Engineering.

Toni-Rose Guiriba is currently studying at Baltimore County Community College. She is working in the radiation oncology laboratory of Robert Ivkov at the School of Medicine.

Sarah Hansen is from the University of Virginia and is working with Jordan Green in his biomedical engineering laboratory at the School of Medicine.

Devante Horne studies at Clemson University and is conducting research with Honggang Cui in his chemical and biomolecular engineering laboratory at the Whiting School of Engineering.

Cameron Nemeth is from the University of Washington and is working in the materials science and engineering laboratory of Hai-Quan Mao at the Whiting School of Engineering.

Victoria Patino studies at Carnegie Mellon University and also works in the materials science and engineering laboratory of Hai-Quan Mao.

Camilo Ruiz studies at MIT and works with Deniz Wirtz in his chemical and biomolecular engineering laboratory at the Whiting School of Engineering.

Marc Thompson studies at North Carolina A & T State University and is conducting research in the biomedical engineering laboratory of Warren Grayson at the School of Medicine.

Breanna Turner is from Fort Valley State University and works in the materials science and engineering laboratory of Margarita Herrera-Alonso at the Whiting School of Engineering.

Jordan “Jo” Villa is from The College of William and Mary and conducts research in the chemistry laboratory of J.D. Tovar in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.