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Virtual summer internship provides students from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to develop research skills and introduces paths for graduate and professional education

Through partnerships across Virginia Tech, with other colleges and universities, governmental entities, and various organizations, the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP) provides support for diverse students who demonstrate a clear commitment to the pursuit of academic excellence. 

For undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds interested in graduate education in the future, MAOP provides opportunities for them to engage in summer research through the Undergraduate Summer Research Internship (SRI) program. Students from a wide variety of academic disciplines spend ten weeks during the summer working closely with a faculty mentor in a mentor/mentee relationship to design, conduct, and present a scholarly research presentation and learn about graduate education.

This past summer, two SRI students worked with Department of Population Health Sciences faculty members on a research project. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the internships were completed virtually. Despite this, faculty mentors and students both felt that the program remained successful in reaching the goals of developing student research skills and introducing paths for graduate and professional education. The completed research projects showcased our department’s emphasis on One Health and aligned with our mission to prepare future leaders through learning, discovery, and engagement in public health. 

Dr. Cassidy Rist mentored Rose Zheng, a freshman biology major and biochemistry minor at William and Mary. Rose worked with Dr. Rist on a larger One Health project that evaluates the health and economic impacts of ivermectin use across human and animal health sectors. Rose conducted a restricted systematic review (i.e., a “rapid” review) to summarize what is known about the impact of ivermectin, a veterinary drug used to control internal and external parasites, on livestock productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa. This review was to serve as a baseline for what is already known in the area of animal health. 

Through her work on this review, Rose practiced valuable research skills, such as how to create specific research questions, develop and assess appropriate search terms, and use reference manager software to organize manuscripts and facilitate the review process. Rose mentions, “The experience of researching in the online database and evaluating articles for inclusion in the study were the most meaningful parts of my experience pertaining to my personal growth in research. These skills that I have developed pertaining to gathering research and evaluating articles can be used in various activities, not only research.” From here, Dr. Rist and Rose will work together to submit the results of the review for publication.

Rose knew before the internship that she was interested in veterinary medicine as a career, but learned through the internship that there are various career paths in the profession. During the internship, Rose discussed career options for veterinary pathology with faculty pathologists in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Rose mentioned, “I want to be a veterinarian in the future, and this opened my eyes up to the different options for me besides just a practicing small animal veterinarian. My mentor, Dr. Rist, explained the concept of One Health. I learned that in public health, many professionals including doctors, veterinarians, and pathologists work together. This made me more interested in becoming a veterinary pathologist.”

Dr. Rist complemented Rose on her work, “I sincerely enjoyed working with her and was impressed by her ability to read and digest complex manuscripts to identify key concepts and themes. I hope to see her again in four years, as a new veterinary student!”

Dr. Charlotte Baker mentored Fatima Diouf, a pre-med sophomore at Smith College. Fatima worked with Dr. Baker on an analysis of the relationship between the female athlete triad and injuries in emergency rooms in the United States using JMP Pro. This project combined Fatima’s interest in female athletes and Dr. Baker’s lab focus in sport injuries. 

Fatima learned valuable research skills such as how to conduct a literature review, build research questions, and use statistics to answer those questions. Fatima found these experiences important for her education and beyond, “I learned a lot of skills from this internship that will be useful for my career path. For instance, I know more about statistical analysis, writing a good literature review and giving a good scientific presentation. Overall, I feel more confident about my skills when writing a paper.” Dr. Baker and Fatima plan to build on findings and submit a paper for publication. 

In addition to her research, Fatima met with representatives from the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine to discuss her interests in pediatrics and the path to medical school. Fatima found these connections very meaningful, remarking, “The most impactful parts of my internship were my discussions with the guest speakers organized by my mentor Dr. Baker. Effectively, they made me consider new perspectives and career paths that I hadn’t considered before.”

When reflecting on the experience, Dr. Baker mentioned, “Fatima was an excellent intern, had excellent questions, and worked well with me and the PhD students in the lab. I wish we could keep her!”