ORISE virtual internships fulfill research program needs during coronavirus pandemic

Virtual interview illustration

July 16, 2020

In these days of physical and social distancing, and taking measures to protect ourselves and each other from the coronavirus pandemic, virtual internships at the national laboratories and other federal agencies are proving to be a great short-term solution.

“We know nothing will ever compare to the experience of being in a research facility and learning directly from mentors,” said Leigha Witt Humphries, group manager for STEM workforce development programs, “but external factors this year have shown us that we have to think about things differently.”

Thinking differently means ORISE program managers worked with customers to be innovative and deliver to students the quality experiences they need to strengthen their scientific knowledge and ultimately become productive members of the nation’s scientific workforce. These customers include the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Students are going to remember who went the extra mile for them,” Humphries said, which will bolster ORISE’s reputation among future students and reduce the risk of the STEM workforce pipeline running dry.

The key to a successful virtual internship is communication, and lots of it, Humphries said.

“Communication is more critical than ever in a virtual internship. Mentors need to think about how and what they are communicating, so that the goals and objectives of the internship are clearly understood. For students, they need to discuss their progress and their challenges, and ask questions,” she said. “We want to ensure there is a strong ecosystem around each student, so they understand what’s expected and also benefit from the experience.”

Heidi Hoard-Fruchey, PhD, a biologist at the Army Public Health Center, built that ecosystem around the two ORISE research participants she personally mentored and the 40 interns in the ORISE program she coordinated for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

“We had to leave the institute very rapidly and we didn’t know how long we were going to be gone,” Hoard-Fruchey said, so she devised a plan to communicate with her mentees and interns by sending a daily email to their personal email addresses.

Her emails included information about the Institute and what was happening at APG, as well as information about learning opportunities through LinkedIn Learning, free webinars and other resources; links to science-related articles relevant to the work of the Institute; and information on “soft skills” like how to dress professionally, how to prepare for an interview, and how to keep a workspace professional.

Hoard-Fruchey’s goal was to help her students continue to be productive and also foster the connections they would have made working face-to-face. To that end, she asked participants to share their favorite podcasts, the best webinar or LinkedIn Learning opportunity they attended, and recipes for the foods they were cooking or baking. She even turned the table on herself and gave students an opportunity to ask questions about her.

“I got questions like, ‘how did you get where you are?’ and ‘what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received.”’

Her email messages took a lot of work, but Hoard-Fruchey said it was absolutely worth it.

“It was important for me to give ORISE participants some guidance while they were at home and to help them understand that their career progression is not going to be stopped by this virus,” Hoard-Fruchey said.

When she learned her on-site schedule was going to be modified because of the pandemic, Dennean Lippner, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at USMRICD, printed off a handful of journal articles to read in preparation for writing a manuscript she needed to complete. Lippner’s project involves testing medical countermeasures for chemical threats.

“It was a little difficult at first to adjust to working from home and staying on task especially with all the uncertainty going on in the world, but I set realistic/accomplishable goals each day to help me,” Lippner said. “This time at home also gave me an opportunity to think more about the next stages of my career track and what accomplishable goals I could set to help me prepare for those next steps. Having a pause in my usually very business on-site schedule gave me time to really think deeply about all of these things.”

About a month after working remotely, Lippner was granted access to a laptop, which helped a great deal.

“Our research team held virtual lab meetings each week to keep in touch and stay on task with any important information being distributed or other important events/deadlines. It required a bit of adjustment at first to complete tasks remotely, but I was able to get a lot accomplished - two manuscripts will soon be submitted for review.”

While some appointments could not transition virtually, a survey released to ORISE participants who were active between March 1 and May 31 indicated that more than 80 percent of respondents (1,866) were participating in a remote internship. Humphries said mentors have looked at their projects to determine which of them could be adjusted to accommodate students participating remotely, and develop new ways of thinking if their project relies heavily on the use of research facilities or a specific piece of equipment.

Virtual internships are a workable alternative when necessary, and some interns may start remotely and then move to participating in the laboratory when it is safe to do so.

“You’ve got to be able to pivot your program to meet these external factors while providing the most positive experience possible for the participants,” Humphries said. “Like all of us, though, we’re looking forward to eventually getting back to business as usual.”

To learn more about ORISE internships, visit the ORISE Internships and Fellowship page.

Media Contacts

Pam Bonee
Director, Communications
Phone: 865.603.5142

Wendy West
Manager, Communications
Phone: 865.207.7953

The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

ORISE is managed by ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.osti.gov.