Alternative Summer Experiences

I have been very fortunate during my graduate school years to explore alternative options for my summers besides remaining in the research lab, working on my thesis, and teaching summer courses. These experiences have allowed me to develop skills and to network with people I would not have had access to otherwise.  I spent two summers on these “alternative” options taking a break from teaching and research.

The first type of alternative summer was early in my graduate career when I attended a course at the Marine Biological Laboratory or MBL in Woods Hole, MA.   Woods Hole is where famous life scientists go to play, learn, and teach the next generations of scientists during the summer break.  The Woods Hole website calls it “a salty sea spray village that brings the Nobel Laureate and the fisherman together in harmony.”  Of the several courses offered at the MBL, I was lucky enough to be admitted into the Microbial Diversity Course, a 6.5 week intensive crash course on all things microbiological.  We spent the first few weeks attending morning lectures followed by exploration of local fresh and saltwater marshes, bogs, and streams in an attempt to culture the various resident microorganisms.  The second half of the course was spent developing individual mini projects and additional instruction by world-renowned scientists.  However, it was not all work and no play as the scientists and students would mingle at the local beaches and bars in the afternoons and evenings.  I was also able to visit Martha’s Vineyard and go whale watching off the Cape Cod Coast.  This course and courses like it give students the opportunity to interact with other students and scientists from around the world, greatly enriching our scientific development in ways that are not possible if we do not venture off-campus.

This past summer I decided to experience something completely different from the normal bench work associated with microbiology.  I applied and was accepted to the U.S. Department of State’s Internship Program as a Student Intern.  I was placed in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary (STAS) in Washington, DC for a 10 -week period.  In this office I was surrounded by science PhDs who were using their knowledge to further U.S. international relations in regards to science policy and science diplomacy.  My responsibilities included drafting talking points, updating program information, and initiating a memorandum of understanding between State and a non-governmental entity.  I was free to attend numerous meetings, seminars and lectures within the State department and the surrounding DC area that caught my interest.  I worked on one initiative, the NeXXt Scholars Program and a research project on the Benefits of International Research Collaboration.  The NeXXt Scholars Program was initiated to increase the number of women from Muslim majority countries coming to the U.S. to pursue undergraduate degrees in STEM fields.  This was achieved by partnering with New York Academy of Sciences and U.S. women’s colleges.  Rutgers Douglass Residential College is one of the 38 women’s colleges that participates in the program.  During this internship I was learning how to apply the professional skills I was developing during my PhD training such as project management, organization, communication, and writing.  I learned how important it is to convey an overview of information in a clear and succinct manner, very different from the more in-depth analysis that graduate students do on a daily basis.  Being in DC provided me with the opportunity to network daily with professionals in related fields, experience the inner workings of the government, and discover numerous other possible career directions after graduation.

These two experiences, in addition to the normal teaching and research, have helped to round out my graduate education.  I learned and honed valuable skills that I may not have had the chance to develop if I had only remained on-campus.  Therefore I suggest you immerse yourself in another experience by taking advantage of internships, courses, field work, study abroad and other off-campus opportunities.  It will broaden your perspective and allow you to come back to your research with fresh eyes.  For many of these experiences the time to apply for next summer is now so act quickly!

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