During the 2020–2021 academic year, the Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) intern cohort experienced the first entirely virtual WHK program. Given the uniqueness of the situation, we, Yasmine Zouhairi and Leslie Hilares, interns working with mentor Cathleen Cullen in NCI’s Education Outreach Program, felt it was important to collect data about the changes in our scientific education and what it could mean for the future of learning.
A potato, puffin, pineapple, orange, and lemon stood behind small electronic scoreboards. White text, read aloud by the Scientific Library’s Alan Doss, materialized on a blue field above their heads. “Every action has an equal and opposite…”
Eight Werner H. Kirsten student interns took home awards at this year’s Frederick County Science and Engineering Fair, a virtual competition between local middle and high school students with a passion for the sciences. The event hosted 70 students who created 64 projects, including 28 high school students who submitted 25 projects. Together, the WHK interns who won awards comprised nearly one-third of participating high schoolers.
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.
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.
Like many Werner H. Kirsten student interns, Allison Kang didn’t know what to expect when she made the transition from the carefully managed environment of her high school science labs to a professional cancer lab at one of the nation’s premier research facilities. Kang had just finished her junior year at Urbana High School when she began working in the Neutrophil Monitoring Laboratory under Debbie Long Priel and Doug Kuhns, Ph.D. And it didn’t take long for her to realize that there were big differences between her school’s A.P. Biology lab and a working scientific research lab.
To say Cathy Cullen’s “lab” in Building 427 is nontraditional would be a bit of an understatement. Instead of pipettes, there are pipe cleaners. The chemical reactants are baking soda and lemon juice. And the “animal” is a blue plastic robotic mouse. Cullen’s operation is the epicenter of Education Outreach Services in the Office of Scientific Operations for NCI at Frederick. She is tasked with bringing extracurricular science to young people in Frederick County Public Schools and organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club of Frederick County and the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick.
The recent Werner H. Kirsten student poster day gave NCI at Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory high school interns a chance to showcase their work to peers, colleagues, and anybody else who passed through the Building 549 lobby, with research spanning microscopy, mutagenesis, and social media. As the second poster presentation that students give—the first occurs in the summer, shortly after the internships begin—the winter event often feels like a “capstone” to the year-long internship. With that in mind, several interns reflected on their experiences and offered advice to their successors. The following is lightly edited for brevity.
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.
Each summer, dozens of students from the Werner H. Kirsten and Summer Internship Programs who have been hard at work under the supervision of seasoned scientists and mentors gather to share their research with the NCI at Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory community. Over two days in late July, 46 students ranging from high school to graduate school presented their findings to mentors, scientists, and their fellow interns at the NCI at Frederick campus and the Advanced Technology Research Facility.