Over the past 19 summers, more than 220 students from across the country have had the chance to work with some of the world’s leading scientists at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET). Through the IMET Summer Undergraduate Internship Program, students who are from historically underrepresented backgrounds in marine and environmental science have the opportunity to conduct their own research projects. This summer the immersive internship went virtual, enabling interns to pursue research remotely from New Mexico to Maryland.
The IMET Summer Undergraduate Internship Program has been directed since 2001 by Professor Rose Jagus, who has worked towards improving the lack of diversity in marine sciences. Arising from a NOAA-Educational Partnership Program funded partnership with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and other minority serving institutions, she developed the program, which she saw as a powerful way to introduce students to careers in marine and environmental sciences. In recent years, the program has been funded by generous donors including Mary Catherine Bunting and the Bunting Family Foundation.
“There are so few people of color in marine and environmental sciences, and that’s something we need to work towards fixing. What is special in this field is that at IMET we bring in the molecular component, too. It really is making a difference in the field, and we have alumni who have done incredibly well following the program,” said program director Rose Jagus.
The summer program, now funded by private donors, works to increase diversity and prepares students for entering Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. Increasing diversity in STEM fields not only increases representation to encourage and inspire the next generation of scientists, but brings in different viewpoints which can help spark innovation.
“We have made diversity, equity, and inclusion high priorities in our institute,” said Russell Hill, Executive Director of IMET, which is a partnership of University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and University of Maryland: Baltimore (UMB). “This internship program is a cornerstone of our efforts, with many alumni becoming scientific leaders.”
The ultimate goal of the program lies in providing a strong pipeline of students continuing on to higher degrees in these fields. Students, from high school graduates to college graduates across the United States, apply to the program. Those selected conduct a nine-week project research in marine science where they learn how to apply molecular tools, hear from a variety of speakers, both in scientific fields and humanities, and are connected with scientific leaders and professional role models.
I learned to ask questions and come up with a plan to answer them. Most importantly, this internship gave me the opportunity to call myself a scientist.
The internship was converted into a virtual format this summer to accommodate coronavirus restrictions. Instead of living in Baltimore, interns were set up with brand new laptops, fully programmed with all the tools they would need for their upcoming research projects, which relied heavily on bioinformatics, methods and software tools to understand biological data. They were provided with free licenses and bioinformatics instruction over Zoom from a scientist at MacVector, a leading developer of bioinformatics software, and received a two-day workshop on Science Visualization from UMCES’ Integration and Application Network (IAN).
In a typical year of the IMET Summer Internship, students would be placed in a lab where they would develop their own projects on a topic complementary to the overall research goals of their placement. In 2019, IMET scientists hosted more than 50 interns in their laboratories. The internship provides an orientation to working in a lab, seminars on the use of molecular techniques relevant to fisheries, energy production, and environmental research, a research project with an IMET faculty mentor, and tutoring in science visualization by the science communicators at IAN.
Because 2020 summer interns were unable to conduct research in person, all of their research projects involved analyzing large datasets collected by various stakeholders. These projects revolved around one overarching theme: the health and biodiversity of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Mentors in the program Drs. Tsvetan Bachvaroff, Ryan Mcdonald, and Eric Schott, worked to guide students virtually through their research topics, teaching them essential skills in querying and understanding data. Students were paired up to cover topics surrounding the Inner Harbor, conducted analysis using previously collected data sets, and created a final report summarizing what they found in their research.
I think it was one of the best things I possibly could’ve done because it exposed me to a completely different research facility and environment.
In addition to their research projects, interns heard from guest speakers who are able to play a larger role in inspiring them to continue their careers and emphasize the importance of communicating their science to a wide audience.
“Bringing in such a diverse group of visiting speakers gives interns some ideas of all the different ways they could use their degrees in science and what kind of differences they could make in the world,” said Jagus.
IMET’s summer interns not only learn from leaders in the marine science community but meet with a wide range of inspirational leaders who each have niche advice to help them succeed.
One stand-out visiting speaker was local performer Keith Snipes, who worked with the interns through the perspective of being one of a few black Shakespearean actors. He led the interns through discussions about imposter syndrome, microaggressions, and the importance of representation, since many of the students find themselves the only ones in their departments who are from underrepresented groups. Another speaker, Professor Kate Gillespie, an IMET graduate and current faculty member at SUNY Cobleskill, led a workshop on Poetry in Science.
Also among this year’s speakers were alumni Dr. Jeanette Davis, who is now an Ocean Policy Advisor at NOAA , and Erica Dasi, who is a Ph.D. student at University of South Florida, where she plans to employ another alumna of the IMET program in a summer project in Ghana. In addition, Alice Volpitta talked about how data is collected for Bluewater Baltimore, as interns used their data in some of their projects. Charmaine Dahlenberg and intern alumnus Langston Gash from IMET’s neighbor, the National Aquarium, spoke on the floating wetland initiative, and Lisa Moren, IMET’s 2019 artist-in-residence, spoke on the connections between science and art. Mark Williams, former senior environmental editor from the Bureau of National Affairs and Fred Tuttle, the Patuxent River Water Keeper, discussed environmental justice.
The IMET Summer Internship Program has shown that hands-on research and connections with field professionals sets students up for success. A testament to the success of the program lies in the accomplishments of its alumni. Among the program’s alumni are several students who chose to continue their scientific careers and went on to pursue higher degrees at prestigious locations, including the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
“We had weekly seminars on a broad range of interesting subjects, which is how I met my current mentor,” said Benjamin Frey, a current graduate student at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, on meeting his faculty mentor and fisheries expert Professor Dave Secor.
Several students who pursued degrees at UMCES after the internship were later awarded prestigious Knauss Fellowships. This competitive fellowship matches students interested in marine science policy with positions in Washington D.C. in either the legislative or executive branches of government for one year. The program gives fellows the opportunity to understand the policy side of marine science.
“By providing this training and helping underrepresented groups enter this field, hopefully younger generations will see themselves represented in STEM fields and grow aspirations to do the same,” said Jagus.