Internships, Learning Continues Through COVID
Senior biochemistry major Jason Long Nguyen fully expected to participate in an internship at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse this summer where he would be immersed in face-to-face meetings, symposia and networking opportunities.
While that changed in the time of COVID, the Hanoi, Vietnam native who came to SUNY Plattsburgh as a freshman international student, gained a once-in-a-lifetime experience — joining his Upstate Medical professor doing research on various causes of such illnesses as pneumonia and septic shock.
“My main role was to assist the lab in conducting experiments and analyzing the results,” Nguyen said. Since the focus of the research group is so relevant to the complications caused by COVID-19, we also had experiments to study the effects and treatments of SARS-CoV-2 on human transgenic mice, which could potentially contribute to the understanding of such pathogen in the future.”
Nguyen was among many students participating in summer internships this year, some in person, many more remotely, and most arranged through the college’s Career Development Center.
Contribute to Career Development
COVID is no excuse not to have an internship, said Tobi Hay, director of the center. Internships contribute to career development, help students determine the type of work they like or don’t like, and find what fits their interests, skills and values.
“Employers are always looking for students who can problem solve, adapt and learn new things,” Hay said. “This summer was certainly a time for that. Students are often a ‘clean slate’ in that they aren’t committed to specific ways of doing things yet. In this way, they can be valuable in a workplace — virtual or not — that is undergoing change because they are flexible.”
Nguyen’s classmate and fellow biochemistry major My Nguyen (no relation) of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, also came to Plattsburgh as a freshman international student and was also placed at Upstate in a summer program. Her internship was rocked by COVID as well.
“Before COVID-19 happened, I was accepted into the 2020 SURF Program of The Rockefeller University for this summer,” she said. “When I received the news that the on-site program was cancelled because of COVID-19, I was devastated; this is a highly prestigious program, with only three to four percent acceptance rate.”
Didn’t Give Up
But My didn’t give up. She reached out to Dr. Huaiyu Hu in the Department of Neuroscience and Physiology at Upstate with whom she worked summer 2019 as a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow. She was welcomed back not only for the summer 2020 program at Upstate but for the fall as well.
“I was fortunate to be welcomed back to the lab,” she said. Like so many others, she has to perform self-screening, wear personal protective equipment, disinfect her work station, practice social distancing and perform frequent handwashing. Lab meetings are via Zoom. Her duties include tissue sectioning, staining and genotyping, research she did the previous summer. But it is in no way redundant.
“I am learning new things every day. Not only do I learn new techniques, but I am also trained to think, write and communicate like a scientist,” she said. The work is more of a struggle because in addition to continuing the internship through the fall, My is finishing up her SUNY Plattsburgh degree online.
“Like every student, I struggle a lot. I still have many worries, doubts, anxiety and frustration, especially during this difficult time. But at the end of the day, I know that I am spending my 20s contributing even just a little to help advance science, and that keeps me going.”
Contribute to Career Development
Kass Doran, a senior psychology major from McGraw, N.Y., had to exhibit such flexibility.
She applied for her summer internship with the Henry Jackson Foundation in Bethesda, Md., in concert with the Center for Rehabilitation Sciences Research at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. After several interviews she was offered the spot mid-February. She planned to start mid-May, but the move to Washington, D.C., happened a month later.
“I helped with a research study that uses service dogs as a treatment for veterans with PTSD along with a different study that is looking at transcranial magnetic stimulation as a form of therapy for veterans in many different aspects,” Doran said. While COVID has made it impossible to collect data from participants, Doran said she’d been afforded other duties.
She had the opportunity to read protocols, help write major grants, complete abstracts, hold consent sessions and work under a well-known research military hospital, though it wasn’t what was expected.
“With the job being hands on, it took a good amount of time and creativity to be able to change it into remote work,” she said. “It’s a bit more challenging understanding tasks over email or a phone call and, and (there wasn’t) a lot of shadowing. Performing tasks on my own could be a bit overwhelming, but it was still such a great learning experience. I’m so grateful the internship wasn’t cancelled as many of my friends were. Living in D.C. was an opportunity I probably wouldn’t have had without this internship.”
The silver lining in remote internships is that students who wouldn’t be able to travel or relocate can still have an experiential learning opportunity.
“While the experience may be a bit different, the work and outcomes are similar,” said Morgan Pellerin, assistant director of the Career Development Center. “We are also seeing many industries posting remote full-time positions, and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Thus, a student having a remote internship experience may be attractive to an employer who is hiring for a remote full-time position.”
Worksite 230 Miles Away
Paola Alba Jimenez interned at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., as a Business Development Fellow.
“I was a vital piece to the business development team for everyday operations,” the junior triple major said. Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, she currently resides in New York City, and like Doran, Jimenez’ internship worksite was in the U.S. Capitol District but her worksite was at home 230 miles away.
“We usually had a daily meeting in the morning to discuss daily and weekly tasks,” she said. “We kept each other updated throughout the day via Zoom or phone calls. Under the circumstances, it was a good experience but at the same time, it was more stressful than expected. Meeting deadlines was difficult since we had to call each other multiple times per day in order to be on the same page in tasks.”
Jimenez, who is majoring in business administration, international business and marketing, still found it worthwhile.
“I believe I have learned and grew a lot,” she said. “As a result, my Microsoft Office and communication skills are highly improved, as are my organizational and management skills. It also opened my eyes to a higher career field of interest,” she said. “I didn’t just enjoy my duties or my interaction with the staff. I also share the same values as the organization. I am planning to keep a good relationship with the staff and people I met since I am pretty interested in working in this field.”
“Internships help students build marketable skills,” Hay said. “They help them determine the type of work and work environment they want to pursue professional. The more experience one can get the better, even if it’s not an official internship. Any time spent on business or professional projects is valuable.”
Morgan said internships are perfect for this kind of “test drive” of a career.
“Internships allow students to develop skills in their field of interest and put the academic learning to use in a practical, hands on setting,” he said. “For some students, they may realize the idea they had in their head about a particular career does not match the reality, so it helps them narrow in on their industry or career of choice. For others, it solidifies their career interests, and allows them to develop their resume and professional network, which are important keys to launching a successful career after college.”
As for Jason Nguyen, he plans to go on to earn his Ph.D.
“Though it was just a first step in my career in science, I always envisioned myself as a scientist in training,” he said, much Dr. Frank Middleton, a 1991 alumnus whose Upstate lab is responsible for developing the rapid pool testing being used by SUNY campuses, including Plattsburgh, for surveillance and tracing of COVID. “He and many other SUNY alumni I had the chance to know became a big source of motivation for me, and I hope I can return one day to inspire another generation of Plattsburgh students to go out there and do big things.”