Start Small, Start Early

It’s never too early to start looking for internships, and biology major Matthew Stevens can attest to that. Starting the summer after he graduated high school, Stevens’ outgoing personality and willingness to ‘start small’ eventually led to research internships at two top-class institutions.

“In order to get into med-school, you have to have a good resume, and you have to get research opportunities,” says Stevens.

Like many great researchers, Stevens started out as an unpaid office clerk. Although his work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories (CSHL) at first did not entail research, it afforded him the opportunity to attend lectures there and meet top scientists, including Dr. James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

At CSHL, Stevens learned that if you want to get research experience, you’ve got to ask for it. After emailing several neurology and cancer researchers at Cold Spring Harbor, he landed an unpaid internship researching rat decision-making—a topic with many human implications, including therapy for people with autism. His work led to an offer to continue researching at CSHL the following summer.

After his stint at CSHL, Stevens found his next research opportunity again via email—this time contacting dozens of researchers from a variety of places. He ended up getting involved with Dr. Stefan Tafrov’s cancer research at Brookhaven National Laboratories (BNL). Stevens’ winter work at the BNL led him to explore more opportunities there, and he applied to their Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program. Funded by the Department of Energy, this program allowed Stevens to continue his work with Dr. Tafrov, and get paid in the process.

Under Tafrov’s guidance, Stevens researched the role of a protein called histone acetyltransferase in DNA repair. The results of their study had important implications for chemotherapy, space exploration, and cancer-cell proliferation.

In addition to working with top-of-the-line research gadgets, attending lectures, and meeting with distinguished scientists, Stevens’ work at the BNL gave him valuable research skills like cell culturing, slide preparation, gel electrophoresis, and fluorescence microscopy. He also made important connections with people in the field and learned to analyze and present the results of their study.

“The work that I did with Dr. Tafrov was incredibly different from the work I’ve done in lab classes,” says Stevens. “In class it’s all about the procedure, and if you mess up you might get a few points off of your grade. But in the real world, the results are much more important. In the real world, you have to deal with the implications of your mistakes and think fast to correct them, since these experiments cost a lot of time and effort.”

Though Stevens’ success derives largely from his eagerness and confidence to pursue his goals, there is also some strategy involved. Stevens advises that the best time to look for winter internships is around or before Yom Kippur weekend, before most students start thinking about winter break. In addition, he advises, students should concentrate their efforts on unpaid, rather than paid, internships, as these naturally have less competition and can lead to other, paid opportunities.

Currently a junior at BU, Stevens continues to be active in and enthusiastic about research, and will pursue a career in helping others, either through research or medical practice.

Deeply passionate about helping people with cancer, Stevens found that “the worst thing about research is knowing that sometimes you don’t have the answer, and you just have to be satisfied that you’re doing the best you can.”

Those unanswered questions—and the people afflicted as a result of them—are of course the driving forces of research, and it is the gallant efforts of researchers that, over time, supply solutions to such vital problems.

By Sarah E. Fecht

Brookhaven National Laboratories supports research in a broad spectrum of research areas, including biology, nanoscience, medicine, chemistry, environmental science, and physics. Their top-notch facilities include the world’s newest and largest accelerator for nuclear physics research and many instruments not found at other institutions. BNL offers several educational opportunities for college students, including the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program, which offers research opportunities for spring, summer, and fall terms, and the Pre-Service Teachers program, which immerses future teachers in a research environment and trains them to become more effective science educators.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories offers internships for undergraduate students in cancer biology, neuroscience, plant biology, cellular and molecular biology, genetics, macromolecular structure, and bioinformatics.

Last Updated: 7/1/15