WHK Interns on Pivoting to Remote Work

By Karolina Wilk, staff writer
A group of WHK interns meeting virtually (image provided by Sophie Nielson).

A group of WHK interns meeting virtually (image provided by Sophie Nielson).

As the pandemic has forced many people to work from home or cancel their plans, the Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) interns have been no exception. Every year, NCI at Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory welcome a new group of high school seniors as interns through the WHK Student Intern Program. The students participate in a yearlong internship under the wing of a mentor in either a research area or administrative area in support of research.

One main facet of the program is the opportunity to provide a “hands-on” experience, which wasn’t possible this year due to precautions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of cancelling internships, mentors and interns plowed ahead, overcoming the challenges of remote internships together.

Below, several of this year’s interns reflect on their experience so far and how they’ve adapted to a virtual internship:

Tatum Horton, Laboratory of Cancer Immunometabolism­­, NCI
Mentor: Julio Valencia

“My internship focus is the interaction of mechanisms that lead to the destruction of melanocytes in vitiligo patients. When I received news that I had been accepted into the internship, I was ecstatic! I was not only going to be getting a taste of my possible future career, but I was also going to be working at one of the top research facilities.

“However, [because of] current events ... I thought it was going to be cancelled, but the amazing team dedicated to working on this program decided to go virtual ... I was welcomed in with kind emails from all the staff, and eventually I was having virtual meetings with many scientists sharing their knowledge and advice with myself and many other interns.

“Due to not being able to be in the lab, my research has been a lot of reading research papers and asking questions to the many mentors at our disposal. Though we are not able to see the physical nature of our projects, we are able to understand them through others’ research. It was inspiring to see how all of us were able to adapt to such a change in climate and make do with it, but it was not without its struggles. …

“My mentor, as well as many others working under Dr. Howard Young’s lab, have been so thoughtful toward how we have all been affected in these uncertain circumstances. They have all been very understanding and versatile when it comes to finding a modern solution to our current situation.”

Samyak Jain, RNA Biology Laboratory, NCI
Mentor: Anu Puri

“I am currently learning about siRNA delivery and therapeutic applications. A virtual internship does limit my hands-on experience, but nonetheless, the WHK Program has still been incredibly valuable and fun. I have gotten the opportunity to learn about emerging advances in the medical field, how scientists conduct research, and many other crucial details that I may need going into a future health career.

“The close interaction with my mentor and the flexible scheduling has been particularly awesome, as it gives me adequate time to do other things, such as schoolwork and extracurriculars, while also always being within an arm’s reach of a respected scientist who wants to see me grow and improve.

“Though I wish I could go into the lab and do some hands-on experiments and research myself, the learning opportunity is still there!”

Sophie Nielsen, Communications Office, Frederick National Laboratory
Mentor: Mary Ellen Hackett

“Working online has been a bit of a challenge, but the only unfortunate part has been not being able to have the full experience. Having been to the [Advanced Technology Research Facility] many times before the internship started, I came to really enjoy being able to visit and going to some of the lectures hosted.

“I also wish I was able to meet the other interns outside of the club settings, but it is still a great experience. The work itself has been really exciting as well as a good challenge, and having more flexibility for myself has certainly been a help. I hope we are able to go in somewhat soon, but I understand the challenges of bringing interns in.

“The internship, online or in person, has been an amazing experience so far … being able to work in this more professional setting has given me a lot of valuable experience. I have been able to work with some amazing writers and learn much more about journalism ... I have gained so much more experience in a field I only dreamed of in the past few years and have been able to improve my writing and expand it to include new types of audiences. I have also been able to learn so much more about the work done at the Frederick National Laboratory, which has been incredible. I am looking forward to continuing my internship and I cannot wait to learn even more!”

Stephanie Parker, RNA Biology Laboratory, NCI
Mentor: Lorena Parlea

“I am grateful for even being able to complete my internship, considering that I am one of only 15 kids who get the opportunity to do so. That being said, the limitations of the virtual setting have caused my role in the internship to change completely.

“Instead of receiving hands-on lab experience … I am completing data analysis and reading papers. The change has limited the amount of growth that could take place as a result of change in course of the internship.

“It has not all been negative, as the change to a virtual setting has allowed me to acquire new skills in data analysis that I did not have before [and] which are also important skills for my desired major in biomedical engineering.

“I am also happy for the opportunity to work under my mentor, Lorena Parlea, as she has been very flexible with me and was an adamant trailblazer who pushed for my inclusion in the program regardless of the pandemic.”

Yasmine Zouhairi, Educational Outreach Program, Office of Scientific Operations, NCI
Mentor: Cathleen Cullen

“Being virtual has required many adjustments in the way of learning and communicating, but I’m grateful to have the opportunity to intern, even if it is entirely remotely. One of the biggest challenges our program faces this year is the fact that the interns have never actually met each other. We only see one another through screens during our meetings.

“In previous years, interns might get to know each other over lunch or through working on projects together, but this has not been feasible for our program thus far. Because of this, it’s harder to collaborate and understand each other. It became apparent to me that we needed to find a way to overcome this barrier and foster more teamwork amongst us. And given that I’m an educational outreach intern, I thought that this would be the perfect project for me to take on.

“I had the idea to start our weekly intern meetings with fun ‘icebreaker’ team-building activities, which have helped the interns to form stronger relationships and increase engagement in our meetings. Many of the interns have said that these activities allowed them to get to know others in the program and become more comfortable with working as a group.

“I also began working with my mentor to create a science-themed Jeopardy! tournament for the interns; it’s a tradition that normally takes place in-person every year, but we are working to format it virtually.

“It’s definitely more difficult to interact and learn when you’re separated by a screen, but I feel that it has prompted a great deal of ingenuity in order to overcome these challenges. I think it’s crucial to continue strengthening education in the community, and I will continue to find creative ways to do this, despite the challenges.”

Portrait of WHK intern Samyak Jain (provided by Samyak Jain). Portrait of WHK intern Sophie Nielson (provided by Sophie Nielson). Portrait of WHK intern Stephanie Parker (provided by Stephanie Parker). Portrait of WHK intern Tatum Horton (provided by Tatum Horton). Portrait of WHK intern Yasmine Zouhairi (provided by Yasmine Zouhairi).