CenUSA Summer Internship Program: Proving Ground For Future Scientists

Jake Miller
Newsletter Issue: 
June 2015

Incoming CenUSA interns
Above: Incoming CenUSA interns during their week-long training 
at Iowa State University. Photo: Jake Miller

With the USDA and scientific agencies supporting ambitious large-scale research projects to address 21st century challenges, the demand for capable scientists has never been higher. CenUSA’s summer internship program is helping build scientific capacity.

The U.S. has made graduating students with science and technology degrees a priority. “There has been talk about trying to expand the pipeline of students going to grad school,” said Raj Raman, education co-director of CenUSA. “That is why one of CenUSA’s primary goals is to teach and get younger students excited about research. Out of past interns around 60% of them went on to graduate school. If more students go on to graduate programs that will result in more domestic scientists.”

“I was not one hundred percent gun-ho on attending grad school,” said Ross Mazur, previous CenUSA Intern, who will begin working towards his master’s degree this fall. Mazur said that although graduate school was an interest it was never a top priority until after his CenUSA internship. Mazur interned under Dr. David Laird, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, conducting research on using biochar as a soil amendment.

To enter CenUSA’s intern program students must have completed at least one year of college and have at least one more semester left. CenUSA offers research internships in a wide variety of subjects and works to place students in a position that helps further their studies and is something they are interested in.

The interns bond through a weeklong training at Iowa State University before they begin their internship. “They create their own little network,” said MaryAnn Moore, internship program coordinator at CenUSA. “This is important because after briefly meeting at Iowa State University the interns are distributed to their respective research locations which could be in Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, or Illinois.”

In addition to checking in with each other from time to time the interns meet with Moore or Raman, either online or face-to-face. This is another key part of the learning experience for interns. Moore and Raman both believe that proper mentoring is essential in growth whether it’s by a faculty member, fellow researcher, or graduate student.

CenUSA recruits interns from a vast variety of educational backgrounds. Past interns have been selected from communication, agriculture, chemical engineering and animal science.
“This diversity is great for research and problem solving,” said Raman. “Many interns end up a few steps away from their specific major. When that is combined with working alongside someone in a completely different major the result is creative and diverse approaches to problem solving.”

Raman said that such problem solving is the kind of thing that really sets someone apart on a resume when applying for jobs or graduate school. This is because people who have learned how to approach and conduct research will likely be better grad students than those who are interested but have never actually performed research.

In addition to problem solving Mazur’s summer internship gave him experience using lab equipment, and working with large sets of data. Mazur also developed relationships convinced him to pursue his master’s program.

At the end of the summer all CenUSA interns regroup at Iowa State to present their final posters. Their posters explain why the research they did was important, how it was performed, what they used, and the rationale to their approach. Interns will also present during CenUSA’s annual meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.

“[The posters are] a catalyst for conversation,” said Raman. When faculty see presentations from a project outside of their own it exposes them to new ideas and ways of approaching problems.