Few experiences are more important for young scientists than the opportunity to actually do science, as opposed to just reading about it in a textbook. That first research experience is when many young scientists first realize that imagination, problem-solving skills, energy, and persistence are the catalysts for new knowledge. The experience helps many young people decide whether they want to be scientists.
These days, many undergraduates have the opportunity to do research at their home institutions, but there's a special intensity that comes with leaving home and working hard in a new place. A planned, formal research experience offers many advantages, including exposure to new topics, techniques, and equipment; the self-confidence that comes from accomplishing things in an unfamiliar setting where your prior record doesn’t matter; the opportunity to develop new friendships based on shared intellectual interests; and the chance to find new mentors and professional advisers.
Real research experience--especially when it's varied--is the only way for a young scientist to discover a unique scientific voice, to develop his or her personal scientific style. One student I know started out doing research with a biochemist, then switched to a new project with a physical chemist, and ended up going to graduate school in biophysics. Another started in a bioinorganic lab and then did a summer project with an environmental engineer. She went on to study chemical oceanography in graduate school. At every stop, new techniques are learned and new perspectives on science are embraced and combined. Students go home armed with their new insights and enthusiasm, prepared to make real contributions to research programs at their home institutions. For many scientists, that maturation doesn't happen at least until graduate school, if it happens at all. An internship can provide an early start.
All this, of course, is old news for many readers of Science Careers. Our readers are mostly graduate students, postdocs, and established scientists. The people who will benefit most from a good summer internship are younger, so they may not see this feature--unless you show it to them. So please e-mail a link to this feature index to the promising undergraduate scientists you know. Distribute it to your class mailing list. If you have undergraduates working in your lab, make sure they see it. Print out several copies and leave them in the department office or stuff them in mailboxes. Whatever you can do to get this feature in front of the right eyes, please do it.
Before you head off for a new experience, it's a good idea to know what's expected of you. In Making Your Summer Research Internship a Good One Elisabeth Pain, our contributing editor for South and West Europe, tells aspiring interns how to take full advantage of their summer internship opportunities.
Next, in Internships Offer Undergrads Full-time Research Immersion, freelance writer Lucas Laursen, who is based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, focuses on the inverse question, telling imminent interns what to expect from the experience.
Finally, for those we've managed to convince that a summer internship is a good idea, our resources page provides links to many internship opportunities in the United States and Europe.
Photos. Top: Agricultural Research.
Rachel Narehood Austin is a professor of chemistry at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where she spends her days teaching and doing research with undergraduates.