Sometimes it just takes one opportunity to create a foundation for an aspiring biology student—one that could propel them into a fulfilling, lifelong career in research or teaching. For many young people who are passionate about STEM but have never had the chance to nurture those interests, the Horizons Summer Research Internship in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) at LSA is just that opportunity.
“There are so many undergraduate students who are first-generation college students or from other underrepresented backgrounds, or experience financial hardship that make doing summer research more difficult,” says Ann Miller, associate professor of MCDB. “These students may not know how to find positions in labs or are unable to do summer research because they need to make money during those few months before classes start.”
This impasse inspired the creation of the Horizons Summer Research Internship in the MCDB department. For two months over the summer, promising students from varying backgrounds receive a $5,000 stipend to become integrated into a research team and commit to a full-time research schedule in an area of interest, with no prior experience required.
Students interested in areas such as cell biology, developmental biology, biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, molecular biology, neuroscience, and plant biology get matched with a research mentor in the field, helping facilitate hands-on research experience in their labs and professional development and community-building opportunities with the Horizons program.
“The Horizons internship is important for fostering knowledge and lab skills, as well as bolstering their confidence and interest in research by community building—meeting other scientists and students,” says Miller. Horizons interns get introduced to scientific questions, tools, and techniques, learning how to make connections between information learned in the classroom and generating new knowledge in an academic lab setting.
The internship can be a powerful tool in diversifying the STEM field, supporting students’ growth and feeling of belonging as scientists. After this program’s mini-poster symposium highlighting the participants’ research projects, every intern shared plans to continue their research in an MCDB lab this fall.
Two of these undergraduate interns were Jalen Smith and Sydney Richardson. Smith and Richardson conducted experiments, attended research seminars, and prepared mini-posters presenting their own findings at the end of the nine-week internships. They also had the opportunity to go out for ice cream and stroll through the Arb with past Horizons interns, and to attend panel discussions with graduate students and faculty members about life as a scientist and various training paths.
Research on Kidney Disease and Chromosome Ends
Smith’s research focused on an essential protein for the body’s ability to make a protective barrier around its organs. Current research suggests that mutations in this protein can be linked to patients with kidney disease, so Smith tested how an uncharacterized mutation in this protein affects cells and tissues.
“I found that mutations in that one protein messed up many other proteins in the barrier network and the overall cell layout. I’m going to continue to research how other pieces in the network are disrupted by that single mutation,” he says.
Although excited about his findings, Smith says his favorite part of the Horizons Internship has been making connections with other students and professors. Richardson agrees that the program was a great way to start her research journey at U-M, sharing that “the internship provides a huge mentoring network where you can have so many people to ask questions, not just limited to what lab you choose to work in.”
Richardson studied the structure of a protein complex that protects the ends of chromosomes, or telomeres, from DNA damage repair systems. She applied to Horizons to have an immersive introduction to a research environment.
“This internship gave me my first opportunity to apply the knowledge I’ve gained in high school labs and my first two semesters here at U-M,” she says.
Richardson’s deep interest in molecular biology, cell biology, and genetics once inspired her to consider medical school. Now, though, she says being a researcher is her plan for the future.
“The experience and knowledge I’ve gained here makes me so excited for whatever more is to come for me. In fact, the internship has made it so I’m able to continue working in the lab that hosted me for this internship!” she exclaims.
Both students say that Horizons would be a good fit for students from underrepresented backgrounds who love science and are interested in exploring what it’s like to work in a lab before deciding to take a more in-depth science course or contemplate conducting their own research.
“I would tell anyone interested in applying to go for it,” says Smith. “Research can sort of feel like a black box when you have no experience, and this program is a great way to get started and meet others in the field.”
Richardson agrees. She applied to the Horizons program “to see what research may have in store for me. And now, I think it might turn out to be a career.”