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Enhancing Your Ph.D. Training with an Internship

February 5, 2019
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The process of completing a Ph.D. in chemistry (and many other sciences) may seem straightforward: take some classes, do research for about five years, and graduate. But there are plenty of ways to enrich your journey to the degree, such as doing an internship at a company or government agency relevant to your field. Doing internships during a Ph.D. program may seem unusual in fields like chemistry because such opportunities are difficult to find and fund, and they can be seen as taking precious time away from your Ph.D. research. However, these experiences can be a great way to add to your technical skillset, professional network, and résumé. This is why I decided to take advantage of a unique opportunity to do an internship for four months at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

How and where to do an internship

Finding funding for an internship experience might be the biggest barrier to doing one, but many research and training fellowships provide funding for professional development opportunities such as internships. Programs and organizations that fund these opportunities include NSF GRIP, GEM, NPSC, ASPET, VH@Duke, and Duke GSTEG, to name a few.  Being at Duke is ideal for doing an internship without having to factor in significant travel and moving expenses, since Duke is near many companies, organizations, and government agencies. If you keep your eye out for these programs and have an open mind about what is relevant to your interests and career goals, you will find many opportunities for internships or similarly résumé-boosting experiences.

I applied for my internship through the NSF Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP), which offers extra funding to NSF Graduate Research Fellows to work at government agencies for 2-12 months. After browsing through available projects online, I chose one at the EPA that was somewhat chemistry-related and conveniently located in Research Triangle Park, only a 20-minute drive from Duke. This was perfect because I didn’t have to move or completely abandon my lab for four months. I still came to Duke to attend meetings and events, and I even did occasional experiments on weekends in my lab.

Working with your advisor to fit an internship into your Ph.D.

When I told some of my peers that I was doing an internship, many of the responses I got were along the lines of “Is your P.I. really letting you leave the lab?” and “Won’t that delay your graduation?”

I’m extremely lucky to have a research advisor at Duke who cares deeply about her students’ professional development and careers, and she was very supportive when I told her I was thinking about applying for an internship. What made this work so well was agreeing together on the timing of this opportunity and planning ahead so that my research would resume smoothly once I was back at Duke full-time.

The extra research-based and professional experience I gained through this internship allowed me to diversify my scholarly portfolio and expand my understanding of future career opportunities. I quickly learned new technical skills, designed my experiments and analyses to fit within a specified timeframe, and budgeted my internship funds for travel and research supplies. These valuable experiences that my internship provided will benefit my productivity with my Ph.D. research and translate to future positions after I earn my degree.

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Expanding your research skillset

My project at the EPA was in the field of toxicogenomics, which is a word I had never heard before applying for my internship. I used human gene expression data to analyze the activation of certain biological pathways in a way that is useful for predicting toxicity induced by heavy metals. This was totally different from my usual chemistry research, which involves making and testing new antibiotic drugs that bind to metals in bacteria. The one thing these two projects have in common is the theme of “metals in biology.”

My internship project allowed me to study a new biological system and learn new experimental methods while making connections between two scientific disciplines that pursue similar questions: what is the role of metals in biological systems, and how can we use this information to help improve human health? I was able to leverage my chemistry background to elevate my research at the EPA, and after my internship I was excited to teach my lab all about gene expression profiling. This was a fantastic way to break away from my usual ways of thinking about research and to practice making connections and solving new problems.

Professional development opportunities

During my time at the EPA, I gained a new research mentor, collaborated with scientists from a variety of backgrounds, and even wrote a manuscript draft. The most important professional development experience for me, however, was learning about what it’s like to work at an institution like the EPA, and ultimately deciding that I probably won’t return. This isn’t because of any negative experiences I had, but because the EPA is a regulatory agency whose work typically aims to evaluate existing technologies and systems. Personally, I’m much more interested in creating or inventing new things, and I missed the drug development and synthesis aspects of my Ph.D. research while I was at the EPA. My goal is now to find a position in drug development that will allow me to continue creating new things, with the valuable new research skills I learned at the EPA to help me along this path.

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

This blog post is the first 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 second installment by Katharine Korunes, Ph.D. candidate in Genetics and Genomics.


Abigail Jackson

Image of Abigail Jackson

Ph.D. candidate, Chemistry

Abigail Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate and NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Department of Chemistry. In the Franz Lab, she works on developing antibiotic prodrugs that bind to copper and zinc ions in drug-resistant bacteria.

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