That is what I was thinking when my summer internship mentor asked me if I had any questions. Having only taken MOL214 and CBE245, I was uncertain about what research at a bioenginnering lab on campus would be like. After attending a lab meeting the first day of my internship, I was overwhelmed by all of the new information I was receiving and thought I would never understand metabolic engineering. By the end of my internship, however, I was working independently and designing my own experiments.
When beginning a new research project, particularly in a new field, getting up to speed can be challenging. But if you approach the project efficiently, you will find that this task is not as daunting as it sounds. These are a few strategies that helped me when I entered my summer internship.
The summer after my first year, I worked for the Pringle Lab as an ecological research assistant in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. I have always loved the natural world, and my internship in Gorongosa allowed me to combine that love with my passion for scientific research. Camping for eight weeks amongst vervet monkeys, warthogs and baboons, and working with researchers in the savanna amidst antelopes, elephants, and lions made the internship a dream come true. That dream was made possible by the Princeton Environmental Institute.
Each year, PEI offers numerous established internships in locations around the world. These opportunities cover a range of environmental topics that address complex global issues related to energy and climate, sustainable development, health, conservation, and sustainability. All the internships last at least 8 weeks, are funded by PEI, and are mentored by a professional organization or Princeton professor. In addition to established internships, PEI also offers an opportunity to design your own internship with a professor if you are interested in a specific research topic.
My PEI internship provided me with real world experience in topics I was learning in classes and taught me how research works in the field.
My PEI internship provided me with real world experience in topics I was learning in classes and taught me how research works in the field. I worked alongside three Princeton Ph.D. students, studying the diet of large mammalian herbivores, identifying trees on termite mounds, and surveying floodplain vegetation protected from herbivory with enclosures. Working with the small community of researchers in the park, I developed research skills such as how to plan field projects and take thorough field notes, while also strengthening my interpersonal skills. Much of our work related to the restoration of Gorongosa’s ecosystem following the ecologically catastrophic civil war in Mozambique, and I witnessed first-hand many of the issues that impact modern conservation and humanitarian efforts in developing countries.
If you likewise have a passion for environmentally related research, you can find detailed internship descriptions and application information on the PEI website. The final deadline for established internships is March 27th, but applications are considered on a rolling basis until positions are filled–so apply as soon as possible!
While it takes a little more effort to make a non-established internship happen, it really is all about taking initiative. My internship in Gorongosa was student-initiated and began simply with a couple of students asking Professor Pringle after class if we could intern with his lab. So if you are interested in creating a student-initiated internship, don’t be afraid to ask–talk to a professor or graduate student about creating an internship and get the ball rolling, and read about past internship projects to get ideas and understand what type of project will succeed. For advice on connecting with faculty members, see this recent PCUR post.
For students who are interested in summer research opportunities in non-environmental fields, the office of undergraduate research offers a student-initiated internship program over the summer called OURSIP. The priority deadline is March 1st, then applications are accepted on a rolling basis until April 1st.
A few weeks ago, I participated in an event hosted by Princeton’s Peer Career Advisers called an “Insider’s Look at Internships.” I was there as an ambassador for OURSIP—the Office of Undergraduate Research’s Student Initiated Internships Program. OURSIP makes it possible for Princeton students to pursue unpaid research opportunities over the summer, such as my own, by providing funding to cover anticipated expenses.
The unique thing about OURSIP is that it asks students to take it upon themselves to secure their own internship before asking Princeton for help with funding. As opposed to other Princeton programs, like PICS or IIP, which also assist students in the internship search process as part of the program. As students came up to speak to me about OURSIP at the event, I found that their first question was always, “So what is OURSIP?” and after hearing my description their second, more hesitant question was always, “But how did you find your internship?”
As early as November of my freshman year, I remember hearing conversations around campus about summer plans. These conversations were not about the anticipation of vacation and relaxation, but rather the frantic and stressful search for the perfect summer opportunity to pad their resumes. It was safe to say that I was freaking out.
But this pressure motivated me to learn about my options, which ultimately allowed me to further explore my interests and participate in an incredibly rewarding research opportunity. After many meetings with my amazing academic advisers and career advisers at Career Services, I secured a position as a research assistant at a developmental neuroscience lab at UNC Chapel Hill.
This position consisted of nine consecutive weeks of unpaid, nine to five workdays, and the occasional shift on evenings and weekends. Sound draining? Yes, but I loved every second of it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of work. But what was so enlightening about the experience was the fact that I actually enjoyed doing the work. I found something I was passionate about and I had the opportunity to engage with it every single day.
The first day was a blur—meeting everyone in the lab, getting familiar with the lab space, moving into my office (my own office!!!), and running around campus collecting my various parking permits and ID badges. After taking care of these logistical details, I hit the ground running.
At Princeton, academic research often felt extraordinarily low stakes. Even an argument with a strong motive could feel comfortably removed from the realities of my life. In the academy, we aim for empirical arguments, not personal ones. And though this presented challenges of its own, it was easy to forget how safe it feels to be merely an observer, the omniscient narrator to someone else’s story. Last semester, for instance, my research focused on medieval history and African-American poetry, two topics firmly removed from my day-to-day reality as a white person in the 21st century.
Most Princeton students are worried about similar things. We covet internships as gateways to jobs after graduation. We seldom forget that graduate and professional school applications loom. We see post-grad options as neatly divided among four categories: corporate careers, graduate/professional degrees, fellowships, and (for a few) nonprofit work.
After five semesters at Princeton, this mentality has rubbed off on me. But my time studying in New Zealand has changed the way I see my options after graduation.
Two weeks ago, during my Easter break, I embarked on the Milford Walk, arguably New Zealand’s most famous hike. My favorite part of the four-day, three-night walk was the people I met along the way — Their experiences expanded what I saw as possible post-Princeton pathways. I met recent graduates from the United States, Israel, France, and Australia who were working abroad. Two Vanderbilt graduates worked in the hotel industry in Queenstown. A young woman from Pennsylvania took time to pursue art while working in the North Island’s tourism industry. A group of men who had finished serving in the Israeli Defense Force took a break before resuming life at home. Many of them moved to New Zealand without a set plan and used this work-travel time as a respite from college and professional life, where they could start to realize what kinds of careers really excited them.