The perks of being a science intern

There is no stage of a scientific career more glorious than being an intern. It’s a truly brilliant time – having the opportunity to engage in science with a fresh mind and unrestrained enthusiasm, unspoiled by the hardship of rejection or the torture of self-doubt. An internship is a relationship with no strings attached, where you are curious about the field, not quite ready to commit, but won’t mind having a fling.

Walking into a lab as an intern for the first time, I felt like Alexander the Great walking before his army. I felt the imaginary wind playing in my hair, excited to touch every piece of equipment and devour the knowledge thrown at me. Each of my supervisors seemed like Master Yoda from Star Wars, dedicated to educating me, just another student. 

For a student, science internships are priceless, as they serve as a trial period for a certain area of expertise. With the vastness of modern science, it is practically impossible to choose on a whim, trusting some magical gut feeling (biologically, nothing good ever starts in the gut anyway). “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” as Kierkegaard put it when discussing decision making in the face of many available options. Life is far from black and white, and so are the directions in which our choices lead us. It’s virtually impossible to know – let alone blindly guess – if one path or the other will be the right fit. Sadly, most degree programmes are not structured to leave room for trial and error. Thus, the only choice for a student is to take on short-term jobs and internships.

On the other hand, a common problem in science degree programmes is the infinite academia-versus-industry debate. Whereas most universities offer lab training, few introduce their students to working in a production company or science consulting. Here again the mighty internship comes to the rescue. My internship in pharmaceutical consulting was the most useful experience so far, because it made clear that this was an utterly unsuitable option for me for the time being. As a result, I got to eliminate an option that had been on my mind for a long time. After all, it must not come as a surprise to a scientist that a disproven hypothesis is still a relevant result.

However, being an intern is far from glossy. As with any other endeavour in this life, it comes with obstacles. To put it simply, internships are hard, both physically and mentally. Working in a laboratory is not simply dipping one’s toes in the cold waters of the working world. One must be prepared for long hours and learning on the fly. But frankly, in the right team and with an interesting project, these are no more than minor difficulties.

However, a far crueller obstacle creeps in long before the traineeship begins. Its name is Application. Unlike in fields such as international relations, business and engineering, science internships are rarely structured programmes with an application form and a deadline. Most of the time, finding an internship involves endless hours of scrolling through research groups and blindly guessing whether they might have enough funding to take an intern and whether you’re a good fit for them. The process vaguely resembles door-to-door marketing – selling yourself like an overpriced vacuum cleaner. And as it often happens, one must be prepared to knock on the door and hear silence in response.

An intern in academia is usually some PhD student’s right-hand person (or left; let’s not exclude the left-handed – they already suffer because most of the equipment is designed for the right-handed). Contributing to a PhD student’s project is often highly rewarding – your research gets recognition and leaves a tiny scribble in science history. However, working on somebody else’s project means that your work will most likely be cut short at the end of your internship. “Unfinished” lingers in your mind as you leave the building on the last day. Throughout the internship, the thought that your work has no end goal can haunt your thoughts, which can be quite demotivating. Naturally, it’s silly to expect a well-rounded research project from a one-year entry-level internship, let alone one that lasts just one university semester. It’s crucial to remember that science, on a larger scale, ultimately has no goal. It’s a blindfolded wanderer roaming about a dark forest, fumbling its way forward. Nonetheless, setting a certain structure to an internship with a tiny hypothesis can create a sense of purpose and commitment that are priceless for the student. The internship can be “unfinished”, but in a way that feels like Gaudi’s Sagrada Família.

At the same time, working on someone else’s project is like babysitting – you spend a lot of time with the cute little child, get attached, start loving it, but have no say in its upbringing. Science is an ancient field, dating back to the first time a human looked at the sky and wondered what it was. Science has seen its ups and downs, paradigm shifts, tragic setbacks, and steady developments. However, in its core, the relationships have largely stayed the same. It is intuitive that knowledge comes with experience, and the ‘mother knows best’ approach (in this case, ‘supervisor knows best’) is highly applicable in science. However, new students mean new perspectives on a problem; if one is lucky, solutions can be found in unexpected places. Sadly, when the project belongs to a PhD student who coordinates every step with their supervisor, an intern’s ideas often end up rotting in the back of their supervisor’s mind. On the other hand, depending on the size of the institution, an intern might not even have a chance to speak directly to the group leader more than once, with all further communication occurring through their mentor, and turning into a game of broken telephone. Having the opportunity to be heard and to make some decisions about the project can mean the world for a student. Firstly, it can drag science back from the claws of mundane repetitious tasks and rekindle the spark of childish curiosity. Secondly, making decisions and finding out why they were right or wrong creates a sense of ownership and responsibility for the project.

Ultimately, being an intern is getting to relive one’s teenage years all over again. It’s learning what it means to work in a certain field; it’s reckless learning; it’s making mistakes; it’s getting to know new people, and yourself. As one of my fellow interns put it:

The point of an internship is not to make a difference but to learn to make a difference.

Author: Ayshan Aliyeva

Intern in EMBL Rome

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