WHK Internship Program Presses on with Remote Mentoring During Pandemic

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; image contributed by Bruce Shapiro
Photo of four high school students on a split-screen video call

The RNA Biology Laboratory interns on a Microsoft Teams call during the fall semester. Clockwise, from top left: Nathan Pan, Stephanie Parker, Elizabeth Willman, and Samyak Jain.

The Werner H. Kirsten Student Intern Program has been a fixture at NCI at Frederick for 31 years, a respected and beloved tradition that has given more than 1,200 high school seniors a unique learning opportunity. This summer, it even received one of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from the National Science Foundation.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to break the three-decade streak this school year, dedicated staff and scientists stepped up to ensure the tradition would continue.

The program brings students to NCI at Frederick and the Frederick National Laboratory to gain hands-on experience in laboratories or offices performing or supporting scientific research. With COVID-19 raging during the 2020–2021 academic year, that had to change. Students can’t get hands-on experience because they can’t work on-site.

Program Coordinator Marsha Nelson-Duncan and other NCI staff sought and obtained permission to continue the program with 2020–2021 interns working remotely. Then, a smaller-than-usual cadre of scientists and administrative personnel—those whose groups could accommodate the virtual format—volunteered to mentor the students who could participate, molding minds long-distance.

“When this thing started, it was unclear how this was all going to work,” said Bruce Shapiro, Ph.D., a senior investigator in the RNA Biology Laboratory who has been mentoring for two decades.

Finding Success

The new format challenges students and mentors, who typically work side by side, but everyone is striving to make the most of it. Shapiro’s team has taken on four interns this year, one who works in computational biology and three who initially had signed on to do experimental laboratory science.

“A lot of the burden falls on the experimental students” because they can’t be in the laboratory like they planned, Shapiro said. “I’m sure, from their point of view, it’s not the greatest thing that they have to do [the internship] from home, but we are trying to keep them interested, and they seem to be enjoying it, given the situation.”

These experimental interns are analyzing data, learning to use specialized software, and reading scientific publications in hopes of contributing to a publication before they graduate. The curriculum familiarizes them with the science and important scientific tools, even if they can’t learn laboratory techniques. Meanwhile, the computational biology intern has been able to do most of his work unimpeded, as his duties and training would be performed on a computer outside of the laboratory anyway. However, the lack of daily in-person contact is a negative.

Lorena Parlea, Ph.D., a research fellow in Shapiro’s laboratory, directly mentors one of the experimental interns. She says the remote, distanced mentoring creates added pressure for both mentor and student, challenging both to adapt. They’ve had to be creative about the type of work that can be done remotely, and they have to plan their time carefully to balance school, meetings, and training. These are different challenges from previous years when there was more flexibility.

“Be open to change and adjust your mentoring style to current times,” said Parlea, a mentor of six years, when asked how to adapt.

Interns and mentors who typically work in offices are being challenged, too. Cathy Cullen, an education program specialist in the Office of Scientific Operations, is mentoring two students this year. Normally, they would be partnering with local schools and hosting hands-on activities and events to teach elementary schoolers about science. Instead, they’ve been training on the Next Generation Science Standards curriculum, designing new educational resources, and practicing teaching strategies.

Despite the limitations, they’re finding ways to flourish and do good work. The students have partnered with other NCI at Frederick groups, like the Scientific Library, to curate more resources for creating educational programs. They’ve helped the Boys and Girls Club with its virtual lessons, and they’re specifically evaluating ways to work with underserved students in the local community.

“They are willing to help or partner in any way they can,” Cullen said.

Meanwhile, the program has taken broader steps to connect the interns. There is a meeting for the students every Friday, which includes relationship-building activities hosted by Cullens’ interns. There has also been a science skills virtual boot camp, a five-week journal club, and weekly lectures from scientists.

‘Have Patience’ and ‘Go with the Flow’

While the program’s apparent success is encouraging, it’s taking effort. Many mentors are themselves trying to adapt to pandemic-related changes to their work environment, while students are trying to cope with isolation and the pandemic’s effects on their senior year and plans for the future.

“Have patience with yourself and your intern and do your best in the given circumstance,” Parlea said.

For her part, Cullen understands the strain the year has put on everyone, so she gives her interns chances to share their feelings.

“Our theme for the year is ‘go with the flow.’ We do talk about positive things [too],” she said.

Cullen and Shapiro have created detailed projects for their interns but adapt to give students more latitude as they acclimate to the material. Parlea tries to teach critical thinking skills, which has been a challenge since there has been less time for training and no opportunities for in-person coaching. However, she and fellow mentors often meet virtually with their interns and use modern software to share their computer screens—and their knowledge.

All three cited regular communication as a crucial part of their approach. Each sets aside special time for video and phone calls with their interns, and Shapiro and Parlea invite their students to all-staff meetings—where they’re able to hear about others’ research and share their own work—so they feel more included.

Staying connected in a disconnected time pays off. Both mentor and intern continue to learn from each other, even if it’s at a distance.

“I still like to work with and mentor interns, and I think it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” Parlea said.