Summer Science Internships Turn Theory Into Practice

Kate Eselius ’20 learned something important about herself this summer: She’s not the type who gets queasy at the sight of blood.

Eselius was one of 14 students who participated in the Rivers summer science intern program. The program places students in labs, operating rooms, tech companies, and hospitals throughout the Boston area, where they spend time observing scientists at work, performing research and administrative tasks, and learning about possible future career options for themselves.
Last Friday, the student interns shared their experiences at an Upper School meeting. Each student presented a video or slideshow and spoke about the important lessons they learned; they also created table displays explaining their work.

Eselius interned at Boston Medical Center, following a hand surgeon, and had the opportunity to scrub in and observe 89 surgeries. She spoke with the confidence of—wait for it—an old hand as she described operations to treat carpal tunnel and trigger finger, as well as “ray amputation.” (Some squeals were heard in the audience as Eselius showed a slide with a four-fingered hand.)

Abi Walsh ’20 also interned with a doctor, this one at Newton Wellesley Orthopedic Associates. In her presentation, she described one patient with patellofemoral syndrome and another with what’s known as “frozen shoulder.” The latter case was stubborn and taught Walsh, an aspiring doctor, a valuable lesson: “I learned that there are limits to what medicine can do.”

Will Churchill ’20 interned at JackPine Technologies, where he soon learned the language of quality assurance and eventually performed several test cases, gaining knowledge of “basic Python concepts, how large companies handle massive amounts of storage in the cloud, and how to use APIs and SDKs to organize and present information for websites like gitLabs and Slack.” Clearly, he’d achieved some fluency in this unfamiliar language.

Apsara Balamurugan ’20 and Joel Manasseh ’20 worked at the Lab of Medical Imaging and Computing at Massachusetts General Hospital. There, they worked on a Kaggle competition, trying to develop an AI algorithm to detect pneumothorax. Besides learning what “Kaggle” is (it’s the world’s largest data science and machine learning community), the two gained several insights into the world of artificial intelligence, which they shared in their presentation: that AI is powerful, that mastering it involves failing a lot, and that collaboration is key, as is time management.

The internship also offered an opportunity to put classroom knowledge to work in a real-world setting. As Balamurugan wrote in a blog post about the experience: “As a student in my computer science class, the practical applications of what I was learning often eluded me. After having worked in this lab, I realize that even with my basic knowledge of coding, I can be a contributor on a project as vital and relevant as early detection of diseases.” (Click here to see the summer science internship blog.)

Lindsey Perko ’20 spent the summer weeks at Bluebird Bio in Cambridge, as did Sofia Buckle ’20, where they learned about gene-therapy treatments for patients with rare diseases. Perko’s experience led her deeply into the science behind targeting tumor cells and breaking down proteins expressed on those tumorous cells, as she cloned DNA plasmid and created large quantities of E. Coli colonies. But not all the learning took place in the lab. Perko appreciated the laid-back but serious culture of Bluebird and mastered at least one broadly applicable life skill: “The subway in Boston,” she shared in her presentation, “isn’t that scary to navigate!”

Rivers has offered the program for more than a decade, but this year the program was expanded in size thanks to a gift from Chris Ehrlich ’88. With his support, more students were able to join the program, and participating students received a stipend.

Upper School science teacher Michael Schlenker, who serves as coordinator of the internships, says that that opportunity for students to connect their classroom learning to the wider world is one of the many important outcomes of the program. “We talk about getting kids out into the world and bringing Rivers to the world. This to me is where it really happens,” he says.

“Take the kids who did the Python machine language programming,” Schlenker continues. “They took what they learned in AP computer science class, and they went to a real lab. In six weeks, they were able to make a huge jump from one year of computer science into being part of the team. They bring back to Rivers a sense that, hey, I’m learning something that’s connected to the world and brings value to the world. It just brings to life all the plans and visions of what a Rivers education should be.”