Broadening Your Thinking about Your Research and Yourself through an Internship

 February 12, 2019

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One of the most valuable experiences of my graduate training was a four-month period that I spent away from Duke and away from my dissertation research. I devoted this time instead to an internship at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which I obtained through the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP).

After a few years of graduate school, I had become comfortably insulated within my own research niche of evolutionary biology and population genetics. I love evolutionary puzzles, and I have spent most of my time in graduate school using genomics to study how new combinations of DNA are created, how certain combinations are maintained, and how these processes influence evolution. My work is situated very firmly in the realm of basic science; it seeks to understand nature and improve our collective foundation of knowledge. I thought I could leverage an internship to broaden my scientific perspective and to explore the connections between basic science research and applications in society. When I discovered that laboratories within the EPA help to set regulations by applying genomic techniques toward understanding the toxicity of chemicals, I decided to seize the opportunity to participate in a GRIP internship. This would allow me to explore how my skills in genetics could be applied to practical problems, such as understanding the effects of environmental chemicals on gene expression. I contacted the principal investigator of an EPA lab, and we worked together to identify a project that fit my interests and his lab’s research goals.

I began my internship at the EPA with both excitement and a touch of apprehension. I could not quite shake some lingering irrational guilt for pausing my primary research projects and missing out on interactions at Duke. I worried about adhering to my intended graduation timeline, but I knew that my goals were achievable and that my Ph.D. research could be easily resumed.

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I was also initially concerned about the learning curve that accompanies an entirely new project. After a few years in a project-specific niche, it is easy to feel defined by the community, methodologies, and goals that make up your everyday experiences. This new position helped me to question the definitions and limitations that I had projected onto myself. My fears dissipated as I gained momentum in my internship; I gathered enough data to present my project at a regional research meeting, and later drafted a new manuscript on the topic. With renewed confidence in my own versatility, I now feel better prepared for my upcoming role as a new postdoc. I am thrilled to be joining Amy Goldberg’s lab in Duke’s Evolutionary Anthropology Department this summer after my upcoming Ph.D. defense. Though my new research projects will likely apply many of the genetic and genomic skills that I have cultivated during my Ph.D., I will shift to studying entirely different questions in entirely different organisms. Tackling new problems during my internship reminded me that I am capable of shifting gears and adapting my skills to new contexts. I also feel better prepared after gaining a fresh perspective on career trajectories. First-hand experience in a different environment helped me to cultivate a deeper self-awareness about what I want in my career.

I found that the most striking differences between government work and academia are not found in day-to-day tasks, but in the types of underlying questions that drive scientific inquiry. I spent my days doing familiar activities: reading scientific articles, performing experiments, analyzing data, and attending lab meetings. But government laboratories are driven by specific objectives which aim to fulfill the duties of the agency. The EPA regulates aspects of how people interact with the environment, and its research objectives directly reflect this objective. I was attracted to government research because of my desire to improve and directly contribute to society, but I also value the freedom and excitement of innovation and discovery. In academia, I have the flexibility to be creative and to pose scientific questions that are not required to have immediate applications in the world.  Although this mode of knowledge production comes with its own challenges, my internship helped me to identify more concretely what I love about the academic world.

While internships provide great opportunities for producing deliverables like papers and presentations, they also offer unique chances for reflection and personal growth. As a GRIP intern, I acquired new skills, expanded my professional network, and contributed to EPA research. But more importantly, I reflected on my own values, gained a fresh outlook on my aspirations, and practiced thinking about research problems from different angles. Self-awareness and a broad perspective are some of the most valuable things we can cultivate as graduate students.

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Despite the many tangible and intangible benefits of enrichment experiences like internships, I often hear fellow graduate students express hesitation to pursue them. Many feel that they cannot afford the time, and some are hesitant to risk disappointing their advisors by stepping away from their primary research group. I encourage you to start conversations about your professional opportunities and seek out open-minded and positive forums for exploration and discussion, such as the professional development events hosted by The Graduate School. As graduate students, we have an incredible opportunity to create our own paths. If you are interested in pursuing an internship or other enrichment experience, I challenge you to examine any fears and make sure you are not letting them stand between you and the fantastic array of possibilities that graduate school can provide.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

This blog post is the second in a two-part series reflecting on the EPA internship experiences of Duke Ph.D. candidates and NSF Graduate Research Fellows. You can also read the first installment by Abigail Jackson, Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry.


Headshot of Katharine Korunes
Katharine Korunes

Ph.D. candidate, Genetics and Genomics

Katharine Korunes is an evolutionary biologist, Ph.D. candidate, and NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the University Program in Genetics and Genomics. After defending her dissertation this spring, she will be a postdoctoral fellow in Duke’s Evolutionary Anthropology Department.