Benefits of Summer Internships in Research Labs

Undergraduate students often try to apply for internships at university labs. It can, however, be challenging to get accepted to a desired lab, as it requires a strong academic record and motivation. Although summer internships can be very competitive to get in to, many students agree that they can be very beneficial. This article will highlight the main benefits of doing a summer internship in a lab group.

– Academic Performance and Skills –

Being Member of the Lab

When you start working in a lab, you have to follow certain rules that are set by its members and the principal investigator. While this may seem evident, it is important to realise that in most labs many reagents and equipment are shared. Therefore, it is essential to tidy after yourself to maintain good relationships with other lab members. Personally, I have never had problems with that. Every time I was in a new lab, I got told by the post docs or PhD students what I was doing wrong and I never took it personally. One polite conversation was enough for me and nobody had to repeat it twice. While each lab member usually has their personal bench space, where the level of tidiness depends on the individual, it is a good practice to keep your space clean and tidy as well as get rid of old material.

Recording your Data and Experimental Procedures

Tubes

After PCR, sometimes it is difficult to read the labels of the tubes as the marker can be erased by the heat. Labelling tubes in different colours and noting their sequence in the lab manual can help you not to mix them up.

Regardless of the research project, every student is usually expected to record any results or data obtained as well as note their daily activity in the lab. This is a general practice for everyone in the lab and is essential if you simply want to repeat an experiment, change some of its steps, trouble shoot or come back to the previously obtained data. For me, it seemed annoying to write the same things repeatedly until I understood that it actually helped me find out what was wrong with my experiment. By double-checking my notes I realised that I forgot to dilute one reagent, which affected the protein stability. Therefore, detailed notes are vital for productive work and planning future experiments. If you are considering a career in research, this is a must-have skill for you.

Data Interpretation & Trouble-shooting

During my internships, I had a chance to perform several different procedures entirely by myself, with relatively little supervision. By the end of the internship, I often felt that I became much more efficient at working in the lab compared to the day I started. I was also discussing the data together with my supervisor or principal investigator. This broadened my understanding of how and why particular techniques are being applied, what are their disadvantages, and how they can be complemented with other methods. This aided me to improve my academic performance at data handling assignments and allowed me to be more creative at experimental design tasks.

Understanding, Learning and Mastering Research Methods

RNA extraction

RNA extraction can be quite a challenging procedure when working with liquid nitrogen and requires some practice.

Undergraduate labs that are part of university curriculum are very different from the actual daily routine in the lab. You do not work with other students (unless it is a special part of the program) and you are often expected to do as much as you can with your current skills. Often, it is much more difficult to trouble shoot and there are moments when you are all alone dealing with unexpected situations. Time management, efficient working with a large number of samples, and dealing with stress in the lab are skills that you will definitely improve upon after a summer internship in a research lab.

 

– Other Advantages of Undergraduate Internships –

 

Boost your CV

Summer internships are one of the easiest ways to improve your CV. It not only shows that you are capable of working in a lab environment but also allows you to make new connections with university researchers, who may provide a reference or recommendation letter for your future applications. There is no denial that the job market is becoming more and more competitive, and having additional experience in lab work outside the course curriculum helps you stand out.

Experience of Working with Different People

Although all scientists work in the lab, they are different people. And, surprisingly, despite huge differences in their character, behaviour, attitude and culture, they all manage to find the best environment for them to excel in research and do what they love. While people were generally kind to me, working with some made me feel that I was just an additional issue that they had to take care of in their busy working routine. This was really discouraging and there were moments when I hated having to work there. On the other hand, I met really nice post docs and PhD students who were friendly, supportive and helped me adapt in the lab. Working in both environments was very enriching and helped me to become more independent.

If you work in a lab for a month or longer you will probably get a chance to talk with lab members in a more informal setting. Birthdays, lunch breaks, conferences and talks are good opportunities to talk with students and post docs. This allows you to make new connections with researchers and even find new friends among students. Most of the people are willing to share their experiences, and give advice about their Master’s or PhD studies and describe what are the pros and cons of the lab as well as university/institute. While in some labs you may feel a clear separation between undergraduate students/ graduate students and post docs, others maintain a very warm atmosphere, where the “hierarchical” boundaries are less visible. If you are an international student, you may also see that native speakers tend to communicate among themselves, or notice that ethic groups tend to form separate groups. However, having a chance to work with people from different countries is a very exciting and fun experience.

Presenting your Research to others

Presenting your work is almost as important as performing experiments. There is little meaning in any experiment if the researcher cannot properly deliver one’s discoveries to the scientific community. Very often the members of the research team present their results to each other and discuss the steps that need to be taken further. It is very useful to practice talking about your work to people you know well. If you are dreaming about taking part in scientific conferences or simply want to improve your public speaking, undergraduate internships give you a chance to get feedback from post-docs and PhD students who are giving presentations frequently.

Finding out the Best Working Environment for Yourself

During my undergraduate studies, I have worked in four different labs, two of which were relatively small, while the other two were big sharks. Accidentally or not, I enjoyed my internships in the smaller labs more. I believe this helped me understand that I need a friendly and warm environment, where my work is beneficial and important.  This experience also influenced my PhD lab choice as I have selected to work in a small lab. However, it could be that you would discover that academic research environment is not your cup of tea (especially if you have had experience in working in industry). Thus, internships help to learn more about yourself and select your further career path.

Arabidopsis

Although I really enjoyed working in a plant lab, I realised I would not choose to work with Arabidopsis in the future.


   Overall, undergraduate internships in research labs are beneficial and essential experiences for every student. As a fresh graduate, I can honestly say that voluntary work with university researchers was very important for my growth and PhD studies in the future. It not only allowed me to develop skills that are crucial for productive research, but also taught me to appreciate the importance of teamwork and individual input in academic research.

 

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