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Internship Pairs Scientists and Students

Internship Pairs Scientists and Students

WHOI scientist/FA teacher plays matchmaker


Falmouth Academy has established an internship program with scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The program requires students in grades 9 to 12 to apply to their chemistry, physics or biology teacher for the chance to work in the laboratory of a WHOI scientist for up to 12 hours a week after school. Each internship runs for one trimester.

“These unpaid positions offer our students valuable research experience beyond what they can achieve through the very valuable mentored science fair projects that are already facilitated between our students and local researchers,” said Virginia Edgcomb, a microbial ecologist at WHOI who also teaches life science and taekwondo at Falmouth Academy.

Edgcomb initiated the internship program last fall. She coordinates the program by establishing the initial contacts and expectations, arranging training for students in lab safety, and checking with the scientists and the students throughout each internship.

“The Woods Hole research community is a tremendous resource, and I thought these internships would be great opportunities for motivated students to get a realistic perspective on working in or running a science laboratory,” said Edgcomb. “The program is also an entry point for FA students into the local scientific community, and another way for them to build professional connections in their area of interest.”

At the end of its first year, the WHOI/FA program got high points from both students and scientists. “The scientists have been extraordinarily generous with their time and experience. They have also been delighted with the Falmouth Academy students,” said Edgcomb.

Three academy students were the initial WHOI interns, one each in physics, chemistry, and biology. They performed a wide range of functions ranging from day-to-day laboratory maintenance and data management to assisting with ongoing experimental work.

Justin Waller, who graduated from Falmouth Academy in June, worked for eight weeks after school in the lab of senior WHOI engineer Ben Allen and with Reed Christenson, a research engineer. Justin worked on a few projects and was particularly interested in inspecting one of the lab’s autonomous underwater vehicles used for investigating the aqueducts beneath New York City.

“The internship gave me a feel for the lab set-up and a much better sense of the field of engineering and computer science itself,” said Waller. “I learned a lot about the individual parts of the robots the engineers work on, and I met a lot of good people.”

“Having Justin in my lab was phenomenal,” said Allen. “He worked primarily with me building a data table of heading sensor comparisons, but he also worked with two other engineers in the lab. He was very clear in his communications, and very willing to work. Ginny [Dr. Edgcomb] knows the WHOI scientists and the FA students, so she makes sure that the matches are great. Yes, I invested a lot of time, but I gained two great things: I worked with a young student who is energetic, and he did real work.”

The WHOI scientists write an evaluation of each student’s performance and potential to succeed in science, which the interns may include in their college applications.

Freshman Alec Cobban worked with Joan Bernhard and Dave Beaudoin in the WHOI Geology and Geophysics Department four afternoons a week. “They trained me in pretty much everything, including how to set up the gradients, stain the organisms, and do microscopy work,” said Cobban. Using sediment samples collected during a WHOI cruise led by Edgcomb last fall, he studied microbes that live without oxygen in brine lakes on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.

“It was the first time I worked with scientists like this,” said Cobban. “It was a lot of work, especially at first when I was trying to figure it out and learn the protocols, but I had fun and am absolutely glad I did it. In the WHOI lab we figured out why things happen, and we discovered new things. If we had a new idea, we could change the protocol. It’s real-life science.”

Senior Dan Sakakini worked with Daniel J. Repeta in the WHOI Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department. Repeta trained Sakakini to do phosphorus analysis of seawater, a time-consuming task because it was important that the intern reach a good level of accuracy in the measurement. Then they measured organic phosphorus produced by different types of algae and bacteria.

“I very much enjoyed working with Dan,” said Repeta. “One particularly rewarding aspect for me was to see him take what he had learned in the classroom and integrate it to what we were doing in the lab. Sometimes these were fairly trivial, such as weighing out reagents to prepare for an analysis, but often he would take more advanced concepts of how atoms, molecules, and compounds behave and apply them to our work. It was a lot of fun for both of us. I also think the experience allowed him to appreciate how difficult research can be—how often things can go wrong and the work needed to right them.”

Sakakini agreed. “It was amazing to be able to apply what I had learned in chemistry and pre-calculus the day before to approach Dr. Repeta’s research from a new direction. The internship gave me a much deeper understanding of the importance of chemistry in our everyday lives, as well as a new insight into the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the people who work there. I consider Dr. Repeta an inspiring friend and mentor.

“I also had the opportunity to work with several of his international graduate students, which gave me further insight into the different stages of a chemist’s career. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity!” he said.

Tucker Clark is assistant to headmaster David Faus at Falmouth Academy.

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