To fulfill an assignment for school, high school students often enroll in internship programs. Undergrads seeking future career paths complete an internship or two. Graduate students enlist as interns to acquire skills and build their resume. In my case, an internship also ignited the curious and investigative spirit I had as a child (see previous blog post).
My early experiences as a research intern solidified my desire to pursue bench rather than bedside. Andrew Gow, PhD offered me a position in his lab at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute (CHOP). Andrew had a strong background in biochemistry, and he was a patient and effective teacher.
It was a good fit, since my background is clinical. The scientific environment at CHOP was also ideal. Research at CHOP is organized not only by clinical departments, but also by scientific discipline. Andrew’s lab was within The Division of Neonatology. The investigators at CHOP hold faculty positions at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), and have expertise in several areas, including clinical trials.
There are several core facilities with sophisticated equipment. The environment was ideal for professional growth. Furthermore, the fact that I lived within walking distance of CHOP, Penn, The Wistar Institute, and The Science Center in Philadelphia made it easier to attend seminars and workshops at any given time.
In choosing an Institution, make sure the scientific environment fosters growth and development. An ideal Institution should have adequate human and material resources.
The first project I worked on as an intern laid the foundation for other projects when I became a postdoc. We investigated the role Nitric Oxide plays in chronic lung disease of prematurity; also known as Bronchopulmonary Disease (BPD). This form of chronic lung disease develops in preemies treated with oxygen and positive-pressure ventilation.
A few years before I joined the lab, I had a high-risk pregnancy, which increased the chance for a premature baby. Although both my son and daughter were born at full term, the thought of having them prematurely deepened my appreciation for biomedical research. In fact, it kept me motivated during those early years of my research career.
In choosing a lab, carefully review all the projects in the lab. How excited are you to work on one of those projects? Is there anything about any of the projects that will motivate you to work harder?
Each day I went to work, I was eager to learn more; and I strove to contribute to the productivity of the lab in any way I can. Under Andrew’s guidance, I prepared and examined samples of lung tissue from infants with and without BPD for markers of Oxidative Stress and Nitric Oxide Metabolism. We showed that with end stage BPD the enzymes that produce Nitric Oxide are altered both in distribution and quantity. The work was published in the Journal of Pediatric Pulmonology.
During those early years, I also contributed to the development of novel techniques for the assessment of S-Nitrosylation (a Nitric Oxide-mediated protein redox modification) within pathological samples.
When reviewing the projects that are rotated in your lab of interest, ask yourself: will the studies have any impact in the real world? In academia, this is important when applying for funding. Is the work easy to publish? This too is significant, not just with regards to establishing credibility in the field, but also the fact that completing a postdoc without a publication can be career stalling. In fact, some take it very personally, viewing themselves as failures. They need not.
In some cases, mentors play a role in it. Some mentors are so bent on publishing in high impact journals that they ignore the need for the postdoc to build his/her own publication record.
So in choosing a mentor, do your research. Do not hesitate to ask questions related to publication. What about recommendation letters? In transitioning from internship to a more formal research training, recommendation letters written by my mentor (Andrew) and members of my Advisory Committee were critical. Do you trust your mentor to write a recommendation letter? If not, what options do you have? More on this in future posts. Until then, “Happy Reading”
Christiana W. Davis, MD
Owner, Consult To Aspire