WHK Is Better Than an A

By Chris Hu, Werner H. Kirsten Student Intern; photo by Richard Frederickson, staff photographer
WHK Student Intern Chris Hu presents a scientific poster

Editor’s note: The following is a retrospective commentary on the Werner H. Kirsten Student Internship Program from a recent alumni.

Here I was, an 18-year-old student intern with a chance to interview a prominent research scientist and suddenly, face-to-face with her, I ran out of questions. Silence filled the room. Now what? 

My Urbana High School classes had not prepared me to answer that question. Well, they had not prepared me to interview a scientist, either. 

But through the National Cancer Institute’s Werner H. Kirsten Student Internship Program, I have since learned how to avoid those dreadful silences. No longer am I a stumbling mess, but now a capable interviewer familiar with writing during rapid conversation and responding to inexplicable subject changes.

As a high school senior, I had a choice. I could take two classes each semester. These would have been filler electives or being a teacher’s aide. Or I could go for an internship. My internship has proven to be more valuable in experience gained and practical knowledge acquired. Indeed, being able to write this article in such a way is a testament to what I have been able to achieve.

Before this summer, I never would have imagined facing writer’s block or understanding the paperwork of organizational partnerships. Coming from a STEM-heavy social group and scientist parents, “NCI” had been synonymous with “lab work.” I was never told of the many other opportunities available within the scientific enterprise.

Through a series of applications and interviews, the WHK program matches the most suitable students with the most suitable mentors. This process matched me with two administration departments—the Public Affairs and Communications Office and Partnership Development Office at the NCI-sponsored Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research.

I had no idea they even offered these kinds of internships or that I could even have two mentors. And it’s a serious time commitment: 40 hours a week during the summer and three hours a day during the school year. But I am so glad that I accepted.

It was a taste of the professional world: what was expected, accountability, and, most importantly, mistakes. To learn of these things so young and before college is invaluable.

Compared to my peers working in one lab, I did not dive as deep into learning a specific topic. But the insight I gained into the relatedness and the inter-department dependency and the whole scientific establishment were just as profound.

One month I would find myself in business development, finalizing a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement. The next would be spent be spent in Public Affairs and Communications, writing, interviewing, and editing an article on the same agreement but with a completely different angle. There was the execution as well as the follow-up, an insider view as well as an outsider perspective.

Switching between the two departments every month meant something new every time—I was never bored, never doing the same thing, and always learning and learning.

I am yet to fully master effective journalism or to fully understand the intricacies of organizational partnerships, unlike my friends who held the traditional, single mentor internship did with their research. They went into the program knowing exactly what they wanted, what they expected to get out of it, and what to do in it. Indeed, they did—from just listening to my peers talk about what they do shows the depth of knowledge they have acquired.

I went in with less certainty, but was fortunate enough to have more than one specific field to work in. It gave me the opportunity to explore a few possibilities that seemed out of reach before. I may not have gone in knowing what I wanted, but I came out feeling not just challenged and mature, but also surprised at myself.

To any high school student, certain or uncertain about their future, a WHK intern is a stepping stone to future success. Whether you switch between departments or work with one lab, it beats any two senior-year classes any day.