Summer Research Internship is a great way of getting the hands-on experience and build a strong resume. Here is a story from a biology major student Mary Cheetham.

Mary Cheetham - Rutgers StudentI spent eleven weeks this summer as a student trainee at the USDA Agricultural Research Station at the Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, PA. I found the application for this job at the USAjobs.govwebsite. I applied for a Pathways student position over spring break and got a response in May. Human Resources asked me to fill out lots of paperwork, take an internet security quiz and then they swore us into office on the first day.

“You’ll need a wide variety of skills and knowledge to grasp everything so don’t keep your interests too narrow and always ask for help when you’re not sure of something.”

I worked in the “pyrolysis unit” within the sustainable biofuels and coproducts unit. Within the building, there are units that cover microbiology, chemistry, and biology. Many of them deal with dairy products but my unit was focused on bio-oil production. My supervisor was the only biologist in our unit and we worked exclusively with plant material and “pyrolyzing” it into biofuel.

During my first few weeks, I was taught how to make samples for the machines and began preparing them myself. I was given a notebook and wrote down everything; instructions, useful notes and reminders, measurements etc. I worked part of the day in the lab preparing samples for gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy analysis, elemental analysis, ash analysis, bomb calorimetry, and inductive plasma analysis (ICP). However, many of the tests take a long time to complete so there was downtime. The rest of the day I was usually on Excel in the office. I entered data, calculated averages and standard errors, analyzed data for trends and errors, made graphs and tables, and typed labels for her samples. I also read dozens of scientific articles relating to pyrolysis. I was also given a “project” in which I took the lead gathering data for one of my supervisor’s projects and making a presentation and paper in a professional format. I also got to help with anything going on in the office- conferences, pilot scale pyrolysis runs, and cleaning. Fortunately, everyone was helpful at the office and willing to accommodate my questions and help me fix my mistakes. Everyone worked together to solve problems and give feedback when necessary. It was a good experience and really showed me how the scientific world functions. Overall, I think it would be a valuable experience for anyone interested in pursuing a doctorate in a scientific field. 

As a tip to other students, be sure to branch into extracurricular activities. While I am a biology major and did use some plant biology knowledge, I worked with many chemists this summer and needed some understanding of chemical conversion and chemical properties. This was so important that my supervisor mentioned that it was my involvement in chemistry (through the chemistry club) that stuck out to her when selecting a candidate. She also asked about my lab experience so make sure you keep a record of the methods you learned at school! Knowing how to pipette, organize a lab notebook, and do conversions will be especially useful. You’ll need a wide variety of skills and knowledge to grasp everything so don’t keep your interests too narrow and always ask for help when you’re not sure of something. Good luck!