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Who Wants to be a Researcher? Summer Students Make Their Choice at NIDCR

October 2009

NIDCR Summer Dental Student Awardees and summer interns

Pictured from left to right are: Melvin Dillard, Bill Laun, Emily Pinnow, Katie Maloney, Sophia Deng, Harsh Shah, and Dr. Deborah Philp

The phrase, “Is that your final answer?” became a popular American catchphrase several years ago, thanks to the television show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? But for many graduate and undergraduate students, reaching a final decision on whether to embark upon a career in research can seem like one long dramatic pause.

For 38 high school and university students, this summer brought a lifeline. It's the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) Summer Student Program. The program offers students from across the country an eight-to-12-week volunteer or paid internship to take their place at the research bench and discover what it's really like to work in a laboratory.

The program is organized around two main summer tracks:

  • NIDCR Summer Dental Student Award: This program is open to any student enrolled at an accredited U.S. dental school. The aim is to nurture their interest in learning more about oral health research.
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH) Summer Intern Program. The NIDCR is a participant in this NIH program which is offered to high school and college students who want to gain bench-side experience.

“We welcome all students to come and learn more about science and discover whether a career in research might be right for them,” said Dr. Deborah Philp, Ph.D., who leads NIDCR’s Office of Education, which oversees the summer program. “It is really a win-win situation - we get some of the brightest students from throughout the country to help with our research, and the students gain invaluable real life experience.”

NIDCR Summer Dental Student Award

Bill Laun is a prime example of a dental student in need of an NIDCR summer lifeline. A fourth-year dental student, Laun must decide in the near future whether to take over his father’s practice in rural Nebraska, apply for a residency at a hospital, look into a clinical program in orthodontics, or pursue a career in oral health research.

“I worked in a lab as an undergraduate, then the biochemistry lab at dental school, and now here at NIDCR,” said Laun, a student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry in Omaha. “The experiences are wrapping together and giving me a sound basis from which to make an informed decision.”

Should Laun decide to take over his father’s practice, he said his research experience will only be a plus. “Being in a lab helps you learn to puzzle your way through problems,” he said. “You must constantly troubleshoot in order to proceed to the next investigative step, and that analytical ability will be invaluable in a dental practice.”

Melvin Dillard, a fourth-year dental student at Howard University in Washington, D. C. who also spent the summer at NIDCR, agreed with Laun’s assessment. “Being in a laboratory really nurtures your critical thinking skills, and I’ll take that with me,” he said. “I’m also picking up on a lot of things that we’ve talked about in class at Howard. It’s one thing to talk about things in the abstract. But it’s another thing to work with the proteins and see their structure. It helps to give you a much better understanding of oral biology.”

According to Dillard, he’s leaning toward a career as a practicing dentist. But he said the NIDCR Summer Dental Program has been far from a waste of time. “I’m not sure if this is something that I want to do after dental school, but it’s interesting,” said Dillard, who arrived in Bethesda with some previous laboratory experience. “I may apply to some post-doc programs, and a lot of them require some type of research background.”

In the case of Harsh Shah, a fourth-year student at New Jersey Dental School in Newark, he arrived in Bethesda leaning toward a career in research. “I started as an undergrad doing research in biomaterials, and my interest in the field just grew from there,” he explained. “The intellectual challenges just keep me going.”

If all goes well, Shah said he hoped to be listed as an author on at least one research paper. “That would be really nice,” he said. “I’d definitely have a sense of accomplishment.”

NIH Summer Internship Program at NIDCR

The NIDCR Intramural Program brings talented high school and undergraduate students into the labs. To participate in the program, students must be 16 or older and enrolled in high school or university.

For Sophia Deng, a high school senior who will be visiting prospective colleges over the next several months, the NIDCR summer program allowed her to determine whether or not a science major will be in her future. Deng, a summer volunteer, is enrolled in the Blair Science, Mathematics, and Computer Science Magnet Program within Montgomery Blair High School. She is also a second generation NIH’er – both of her parents worked at the National Cancer Institute 14 years ago.

Although Deng has done lab work in high school, this summer program was her entree into a research laboratory. How do the two differ? “When things didn’t work out in class, it was okay.” She said. “But here I’m actually moving toward a goal, trying to make sure everything progresses.”

“What I’ve really gained from this experience is just being around people who love science,” she added. “They have such a passion for it. I remember showing my mentor a Western blot that I thought was worthless. But he came up with so many other possible interpretations. It was awesome.”

Emily Pinnow attends the University of Puget Sound in Washington State, a traditional liberal arts college. Pinnow, a psychology major, said she would like to attend dental school one day. “I’m learning so much,” she said of her summer at NIDCR. “At college, I would go to my labs and try just to get through them. It just didn’t seem real. But coming here, I’ve had one of the best experiences ever.”

She attributed some of her newfound appreciation of lab work to the NIDCR intramural scientists. “The people here are so intelligent, but they’re also really willing to share their knowledge,” she said. “They’re not just keeping it all to themselves. They want other people to learn too.”

Pinnow said she also enjoyed attending the scientific lectures at NIDCR and across the NIH campus. “I learned about things that I would never have heard about otherwise, such as how a tooth root develops,” she said. “I would have never had that intensive exposure before dental school, and now they’re things that just really, really interest me.”

On the other side of the spectrum is Katie Maloney, a biomedical engineering major at the University of Rochester in New York. Maloney said she has no interest in dental school. She also had her doubts about a career in research. In fact, Maloney said she hoped her summer internship would sour her on the idea for good.

As Maloney laughed, she had no such luck. “I’ve had a great summer” she said. “I was expecting that this would be the end of the road for my research aspirations, but that didn’t happen.”

Even if a research career isn’t Maloney’s final answer, she said her NIDCR experience will remain with her for a long time. “Had I not come here, I would have just continued saying ‘I want to be an engineer.’ But now I’ve seen more. And maybe I’ll still change my mind. But I just think it would be a real loss if others didn’t have this experience that we’ve all got to have.”

For future applicants, Maloney had these words of encouragement, “You don’t have to be a science geek to come here and have a great experience. The internship provides an excellent opportunity to get up to speed on the science and import that knowledge back to the classroom. I know that’s been the case for me.”

For more information on the NIDCR Summer Student Program, please contact Dr. Deborah Philp, Director, Office of Education, Division of Intramural Research via either phone (301) 594-6578 or e-mail dphilp@dir.nidcr.nih.gov.

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This page last updated: March 13, 2014