On the surface, Aliyah Khan and Thomas Benton's internships at the UNC Chapel Hill's Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) may appear to be all about the science, but if you ask these Catawba College seniors and the professor who helped land them their positions, they'll tell you it is also about communication skills and the softer skills that are harder to teach.
"The best thing for them is to have seen the content of chemistry in a work-world situation," noted Dr. Mark Sabo, a Catawba College professor and chair of Chemistry, of his two star students. "Internships like these at the North Carolina Research Campus are really important and that's where personnel transformation occurs.
"They've learned and are learning multidisciplinary thinking, critical thinking and problem solving. They're communicating orally and in written form. They're interacting with scientists and they see role models. These are skills needed to be successful in today's society. It's a great situation for our students – right at our back door."
These two chemistry majors, Aliyah from China Grove and Thomas from Salisbury, actually landed at the Nutrition Research Institute as unpaid interns. They arrived on the heels of two other Catawba students, Joshua Cummings and Ashley Freeze, who had successfully interned at the facility prior to their 2013 graduation. Aliyah and Thomas spent January through May of 2013 there learning techniques for preparing and aliquoting samples for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Then the two transitioned into paid summer internships working on a NRI project funded by a major drug company. Now this fall, they are back to unpaid internships at NRI, and they are both fine with that.
"We finished our paid internships the second week in August and now we're still down there, working on our individual projects and helping out whoever needs help. We're getting more experience through December and that is important to both of us," Aliyah explained.
Thomas agreed, saying, "I learned who to talk to, when to talk to them, and how to talk to them – especially how to talk to a Ph.D. about their work, their protocols and methodology. In the workplace, no matter where you are in the hierarchy, you still have to communicate. Everyone thinks their own ideas are great, so being able to communicate is key. I personally picked that up at the research center.
"There is a lot of instrumentation that we're exposed to in analytical chemistry with Dr. Sabo, but to actually see those instruments working every day and the methodology and the actual chemistry behind it makes all of the classroom theory make sense. In the real world situation, you gradually learn to trust yourself and what you've been taught. I actually impressed myself sometimes."
Science at the Heart of the Internships
The paid internships that Aliyah and Thomas had at NRI involved work on a project for a major drug company. They interacted with 125 people in a study to collect biological samples (stool, urine and blood) from the subjects after these subjects had been given a standardized diet. The goal of the study was to try and develop a new protocol for analyzing microbiome.
"We gave the participants their food daily – actually packed their food into a cooler and gave it to them so they could eat specified foods for two days, and then we collected their biological samples, aliquoted these samples, and prepared them for analysis," Aliyah explained. "We prepared over 11,891 samples."
While a trained medical technician drew the blood and the participants collected their own samples at home and brought the sample containers to NRI, Aliyah and Thomas interacted with the study participants.
"We had a good handful of participants who had participated in other studies and who were really interested in what was going on and asked a lot of questions," Aliyah recalled. "A few were only there for the $250 that they were paid for their participation."
Thomas' assessment of study participants was similar.
Both Catawba interns are proud of their work and say their supervising scientists are also proud of them.
"They had already put a lot of time into training Aliyah and I on ethics, safety, in us taking online course modules, such as one on food safety prep," Thomas said. "Once they invest so much into you, they want to keep you and they're proud of what you have become."
"From this internship, I have definitely learned to think on my own and having the confidence to do the work without having someone standing over your shoulders telling you what to do," Aliyah explained. "It was up to us to manage our time, complete our tasks and do it in a specific time frame. We always had help if we needed it, but we didn't have someone standing over us. I think that was what gave us that push to achieve; it was a real job."
For Those Catawba Students Who Follow
Dr. Sabo sees relationships he and his students have built at the NCRC as part of the pipeline that connects the Catawba campus to the NCRC in Kannapolis.
"This situation we have – this partnership - puts the content of chemistry in the context of the workforce," he said. "We are satisfying Catawba's mission of personal attention and career preparation, and on a big scale. It's a win-win for us."
"We were ambassadors for Catawba at NCRC to start a pipeline for future students," Thomas agreed.
Dr. Steven H. Zeisel, director of UNC Chapel Hill's Nutrition Research Institute, concurred. "We are pleased to give serious-minded students like Thomas and Aliyah hands-on experience in our labs and they have made significant contributions to this research project. We look forward to expanding our partnership with Catawba College and mentoring more talented students like Thomas and Aliyah."
And to the students who will follow Thomas and Aliyah at the research campus, Thomas had this advice: "Be a sponge and absorb everything. Every day, every minute we were at the research center, we were learning something. You never know who's going to come through the door or who you're going to talk to. Give it your all and take from it everything you can."
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