Interning During a Pandemic
Two Summer Programs Adapt to Virtual Workplaces
Every summer, student interns descend on the NIH campuses to get some first-hand experience conducting biomedical research or learn about the administration that supports that research. The summers of 2020 and 2021 were very different.
When the majority of NIH switched to remote work in March 2020, the summer programs had only a few short months to adapt. The NIH Summer Internship Program (SIP) typically hosts 1,200 to 1,300 STEM students in its research groups, and the Pathways program places about 150 students in NIH administrative offices. With in-person work prohibited, program organizers had to scramble to bring students online.
Dr. Sharon Milgram, director of the NIH Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE), which organizes SIP, recalled the difficult decisions NIH faced in those early months. “We had to cancel [SIP] entirely in 2020 due to the nature of the program,” she said, “which in normal years pairs each intern with a scientific mentor in a research lab.” More than 800 students had already been offered positions by March, which made cancellation of the program particularly disappointing. Instead, OITE created a Virtual Summer Enrichment Program and made it available to all interested high school and college students.
The enrichment program returned for 2021. It is divided into two separate programs—one that focuses on high school students and the other reserved for students in college, graduate and professional schools.
In parallel with the enrichment program, OITE in collaboration with the Center for Information Technology, created a Virtual Summer Internship. As in prior years, students applied online and were selected for positions by NIH researchers. However, in summer 2021, the internships were once again entirely virtual.
Using a virtual desktop infrastructure implemented rapidly by CIT, interns spent the summer at locations throughout the U.S., analyzing data, learning data science and computational skills, writing review papers and participating in journal clubs, in addition to attending scientific and career development workshops. The summer ended with Summer Presentation Week, during which 650 of the more than 800 summer interns presented their research virtually in either poster or oral format.
Ella Fitzgerald, a SIP student in the Werner H. Kirsten section at NCI, had no reason to expect a remote internship when she applied to the program pre-pandemic, but found her experience to be rewarding nonetheless. She interned in the Center for Molecular Microscopy, examining cellular images taken with a focused ion-beam scanning electron microscope and extracting features of interest. Like many remote workers, she faced technical difficulties and isolation from her coworkers, but she “wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything in the world.”
Pathways organizer Saimantha Kinsella was able to offer remote work to 73 new students in 2020. That number edged up to a little over 100 in 2021.
“Not all offices were in a place to offer remote work to an intern while they were still figuring out the logistics of long-term telework for their full-time employees,” she said, but the students who did participate spoke highly of their experiences. Pathways students come from a variety of academic interests and work in an assortment of administrative settings to support the research conducted at NIH.
Shelandria Williams, an intern in Kinsella’s office, said her time in the Pathways program “has been an overall positive learning experience.” She had some difficulties adapting to the NIH organizational culture, but she believes that her struggles “created additional opportunities for training and have led to productive discussions within the division.” Williams is grateful for the personal growth and resilience she has gained from her remote internship, and to her office for their flexibility.
Kelly Glass, another Pathways intern who works in the Administrative Resource Center of NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, was referred to the program by a family friend. She applied in March 2020, not expecting a remote internship, but was surprised at the ease of the newly online onboarding process. She said it has been challenging to learn a new job while being completely remote, but that “everyone has been extremely helpful and amazing to work with.” She added that, while she has enjoyed her telework experience, she would like to eventually be able to meet her team members in person.
Organizers hope programs will be in-person in summer 2022. The current virtual SIP, Milgram said, is no substitute for an in-person experience, but organizers “have learned that lots of educational programs work virtually and will help provide information to a larger audience.” Coordinators are optimistic for a return to at least some in-person work by next summer but have the resources to provide a rewarding virtual experience again if necessary.
Pathways has adapted well to virtual work and is currently hosting pre-pandemic numbers of students. As interns Williams and Glass demonstrated, offices can have great success with student workers even in fully remote settings. The program will continue to deliver career-building experiences regardless of work status.
No matter the program, organizers and participants seem to agree: Offices and especially students have demonstrated remarkable adaptability and creativity in these unprecedented times.