Mentors Helping Mentors: Tips for Selecting Your WHK Intern

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photos by Richard Frederickson
Photo of a student and her mentor sitting and reviewing documents at a desk

In a few months, a new class of Werner H. Kirsten student interns will join NCI at Frederick. The eager high schoolers will set to work in labs and offices around campus, gaining unique hands-on experience in fields ranging from immunology to occupational safety.

But before that happens, there’s the nail-biting interview process.

For the teenagers seeking a position, it can be tremendously intimidating. For mentors seeking the right candidate, it can be time-consuming and stressful.

To help both new and veteran mentors smooth out the process, the Poster staff asked current mentors and employees to share their advice about interviewing and selecting students.

Several mentioned putting students at ease and identifying the right candidate. However, at times there was little consensus. That’s one of the things that makes the Werner H. Kirsten Student Intern Program stand out, says Marsha Nelson-Duncan, the program’s coordinator; every mentor has the freedom to develop a personal approach to give students the best experience possible.

A transcript of our conversations, edited for brevity and clarity, is below.

Poster staff: When choosing students for interviews, what “intangibles” on their resumés do you look for to narrow down the number of strong candidates? Are there any traits that seem to predict a student’s success in an internship?

Natalia de Val Alda, director, Electron Microscopy Laboratory: Organization, motivation, and good communication skills will definitely help.

Kedar Narayan, group leader, Center for Molecular Microscopy: We’re primarily an imaging lab. A lot of what we do involves visualization, at least the dry lab aspect that we’ve opened up for the students. If someone’s done any art in the past, that’s a plus. If someone has tried a variety of things, that usually is a plus. A strong math background is a plus. Curiosity is another big one. That’s a difficult one to suss out, but a humble and curious student really has a lot more potential than someone who is self-assured and confident from the get-go.

Shree Ram Singh, staff scientist, Basic Research Laboratory: The most important thing for me is whether students were involved in extracurricular activities like volunteering, jobs, and sports. The second thing is whether they have taken AP Biology or will take it their senior year. And the third thing is their attendance in the classroom. If a student is honest and natural in their cover letter and is really willing to learn new things, focused, and precise in writing and delivering their message, they are more likely to succeed. Grades are not really the first thing I look at. In my experience, students don’t need to be the best at everything to succeed.

Nadya Tarasova, head, Synthetic Biologics and Drug Discovery Facility: I always look at the grades first: students struggling with their classes usually do not have enough time for research and are not able to put enough effort into the internship. In my experience, the best predictor of students’ success is their demonstrated interest in research, such as participating in science fairs and doing research projects on their own or through their school.

Howard Young, senior investigator, Laboratory of Cancer Immunometabolism: I look at their courses and their teacher’s comments. With strong grades, one can get a sense of student motivation, but that alone doesn’t ensure a good fit. I am a bit concerned about students who are very much into athletics, as that could impact their time in the lab. This has to be discussed very early in the interview. I stress to students that if they think they will be missing out on senior activities if they take this program, they should do their senior activities.

Poster staff: In your opinion, how can mentors conduct a great interview? Are there any tips, strategies, or approaches that have worked for you?

de Val Alda: I like to do one-on-one interviews, explaining what my group is doing and what our focuses are. After that, I give the student a tour of the lab and the instrumentation. This is always a key factor for success!

Walter Hubert, scientific program director, Office of Scientific Operations: Give students a chance to express themselves so you know how they’ll fit in the lab.

Narayan: I ask a lot of unconventional questions that often change depending on the interviewee. I find that leading students away from their comfort zone often reveals who they are and how they think. That said, go easy on them—this is probably really intimidating for them!

Marsha Nelson-Duncan, education program specialist, Office of Scientific Operations: Have your current students sit in on the interview. Sometimes the incoming students are more comfortable asking them questions.

Singh: I try to make students feel less nervous. I start with a general talk about this internship before getting to the science part. I usually get to know them by asking questions about their interests, commitments, and any questions they have. Give them a big picture of the science so they can digest it easily. Listen to them carefully. Tour the lab and, if possible, provide a demonstration of hands-on training.

Young: I liked to interview the students in groups so I could tell how interactive they were. This is important, as they have to understand that they are part of a team. I also look for students who actually took the time to read what my lab does and ask questions regarding their role.

Poster staff: What topics or questions do you like to discuss with students in the interview? Are there any that you’ve found particularly helpful or illuminating?

de Val Alda: I like to ask them why they applied to this internship and what they want to learn from it.

Hubert: Ask, “What brings you to science exactly? What draws you in?”

Nelson-Duncan: Ask what they’ve done outside of school to foster their interest in science.

Singh: I often ask them to define their traits. For example: “Do you have any limitations and concerns for this internship?” “Why should I choose you for this internship over another candidate?” “Do you work well on a team? If yes, provide examples.” “How do you take criticism?” “What are your ultimate goals?”

Tarasova: I always ask about their plans for the future: which colleges they are looking at, what majors they are considering, and what classes and extracurricular activities they plan for their senior year. Students who have given lots of thoughts to the future are usually much more mature and better prepared for real work.

Young: Finding out if they have any practical experience in lab work is helpful. Also, their school extracurricular activities have to be discussed. For example, if they have activities that require them to be present at school at 3 p.m., this means there is a bit less flexibility in their schedule.

Poster staff: After the interviews are over, what do you do when you’re torn between two or more strong applicants? How do you choose?

de Val Alda: I usually chose both! With the huge number of good candidates, it is very difficult to choose, so when possible, I choose both.

Narayan: My instinct is to pick the person who shows more interest in the project, and not default to the superstars who have amazing accomplishments on paper. I’m looking for someone who really wants to work with us, specifically in our lab, not just to get this experience as a notch in their belt. I’m also looking for someone who will actually get something out of it, who has potential and who will put in the work to get over their lack of confidence, inhibitions, and lack of niche knowledge to—with us—create something that really can be magical.

Tarasova: I read teachers’ recommendation letters, although these must be taken with caution; they tend to be very subjective. However, the same teacher frequently writes letters for many students, and you can compare their impressions. I also prefer the students who have shown the most interest in our work; you always can see a spark, if there is one.

Young: It is just a question of how comfortable one feels about a student. If there were two students I thought were terrific, I might rate both as #1. However, some students have as many as 20 interviews, so be sure to have alternative choices in mind.

Poster staff: Do you have any other tips for new mentors who are starting the interview and selection process?

Narayan: If you’re looking at this as a way of getting a pair of hands to execute a high-level research project, the probability of disappointment is high. But if you come in with a goal of getting to a project that is mutually beneficial and fun, that is better for the student. Taking three or four kids is risky because you cannot give them the undivided attention they will need. You have to keep them engaged, and you have to keep them excited about the science. That’s the ultimate aim, and that takes time and mental bandwidth!

Nelson-Duncan: Make sure that when a student arrives on campus for their interview, you meet them and chaperone them. Make them feel welcome.

Singh: Diversity is very important in this process, and all mentors should consider this. Allow students to ask questions, and do not be judgmental. Carefully look for personality and character based on your questions. Show the student that you care, can listen to them, and will help them succeed.

Tarasova: If you have specific requirements for the intern, like ability to come to the lab in the afternoon during the school year rather than at 8 a.m., a later-than-usual start or end of the summer portion of internship (because you have a trip planned, etc.), a specific type of work, and so on, discuss it during the interview so that you and the student are on the same page early on.