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So You Don’t Have Time to be an Intern...

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

News Article by Scott Friedland, MD/PhD student

Many graduate students have varied overlapping academic goals and interests, or a hazy-at-best sense of their options when it comes to navigating from their current study into future projects or career choices. Some also need more help than others in finding the time or resources to explore opportunities in their fields that don’t already dovetail neatly with their established career trajectories or fit within their considerable academic constraints. As an MD/PhD student, for example, my career path is, for the most part, laid out in front of me: when I finish my PhD, I will return to medical school for two years, and then apply for residency, not getting back into the lab for at least four years -- at this pace, an internship is never going to happen. But URBEST is dedicated to helping students explore all their options beyond their current coursework via regular workshops and seminars, and by helping students find and finance unique learning experiences they may not otherwise have considered pursuing. The following is my story that I offer to encourage the University of Rochester’s graduate students to consider connecting with URBEST and to pursue additional academic interests and skill-sets, even when an internship is not a viable option.

Despite recognizing that my path was set in front of me, some mixture of curiosity and fear of missing out drove me to check out URBEST’s offerings. My initial foray included a workshop on science communication; attending gave me a number of fresh perspectives on interacting with both lay and scientific audiences. That workshop helped give me skills that led to placing second in the Three-minute Thesis competition, and has encouraged me to participate in the UR Thinkers and Drinkers (a science outreach organization). At a different presentation given by URBEST, I learned that I could take a class at the Simon School of Business called Technical Entrepreneurship and Management. I learned about the creation and bringing to market of technologies from basic and translational endeavors. In doing so, I learned from and worked on a team with an MBA student, a data scientist, and post-doctoral fellow in statistics, all experiences that give me valuable perspectives as I move forward with my career.

Most recently, however, I wanted to enrich my skills in programming and bioinformatics, but couldn’t see a clear path forward. In the Summer of 2018, I learned about the Programming for Biology course at Cold Spring Harbor Labs (PFB @ CSHL), but didn’t think I would be able to afford to attend (even if I could talk my PI into giving me the time off). On a whim, I decided to talk to Tracey, the Executive Director of URBEST, whose office I’m lucky enough to have directly across the hall from my lab in the KMRB. She enthusiastically encouraged me to apply and told me that, if I were accepted, URBEST could help me make it happen.

The course was a two week intensive that focused on using Python, a user-friendly programming language, to tackle common problems in biology. We started with an introduction to Bash and the command line, a program for interacting with your computer and running programs that you’ve created. From there, we moved onto learning the actual language of Python. The second half of the course was more practical aspects of integrating programming  and -omics data (e.g. whole genome sequencing and aligning or RNA-seq processing). When we weren’t focused on learning or practicing Python, there was a fair amount of time for socializing, including group-wide trips into town, a Halloween costume party, and a banquet! For our final project, my programming group created an evolution simulator that was able to track the interactions of simulated people with different virtual genomes over time. Through this course, I went from very little training in programming to being able to solve many common problems in bioinformatics, leaving with tools and resources to further my studies after the course ended; and I had a great time connecting with a number of engaged, curious scientists in very disparate fields of biology who I may otherwise never have met.

These experiences have all shaped and transformed my life as a graduate student, and are all due in large part to the input and aid of URBEST. I want to encourage folks who don’t feel that they have time or direction enough to complete a full internship (including my fellow MD/PhDs!) to nevertheless consider pursuing outside academic experiences that pique their interest. Tracey is an excellent sounding board, and immediately had several ideas that helped me to clarify my intentions and develop a coherent strategy for applying. If you think there’s something that URBEST could help you achieve, don’t hesitate to start in her office!