Young grasshopper becomes the teacher

As the summer approached, new faces started appearing in the hallway, lab and office spaces. And as if by cue, shared equipment was found to have been accidentally mishandled or sometimes put offline. Having gone through this before, I knew that summer intern season was upon us.

As a second-year postdoc at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine now, I have had the opportunity over the years to mentor many people, ranging from high-school students up to visiting faculty. Though we had a handful of interns in our group this year, I was tasked with directly supervising one in particular: a bright and cheery rising second-year medical student from California.

Now that fall has arrived, I look back and ask myself: Why have summer interns every year?

Since our lab mainly involves basic science in studying the effects of potential chemotherapeutic drugs in cancer-cell lines, any intern coming to work here has to get caught up to speed on cell and molecular biology techniques relatively quickly to accomplish anything for the summer. There’s little room for error – despite the huge learning curve for both the mentor and the mentee.

Looking through my intern’s résumé, I noticed she had a bit of relevant lab experience. A huge sigh of relief! Still, there was a great deal of background information and new techniques to teach her for our constantly evolving projects.

As I started training her on the techniques we use, I debated just how much detail and effort to give and how ambitious a project to assign her, knowing she would be leaving in only two and half months.

After we got to know each other, I recalled my time shortly after college when I was a summer intern at the National Cancer Institute with the goal of learning as many techniques as possible. I was fortunate to work with people who were passionate about their work and who went to great lengths to make sure I learned and understood what I was working on. I realized that a collaborative environment is beneficial not only to the lab goals but also to my own. For this year’s summer intern, I knew the hours would be long, but I decided to challenge both of us to be ambitious and continue this approach.

At times, mentoring a summer intern can feel like doing the work of two people. Indeed, there were dozens of questions, some of which I did not know the answers to. Having to spend extra time showing my student multiday techniques in addition to having my own responsibilities meant I ended up staying late into the evenings. Then there was a particular Western blot assay that just did not seem to cooperate, and we both had to troubleshoot, painstakingly going through every step of the assay to see where something might have gone wrong.

As time went on, my intern became more competent and almost fully independent and produced beautiful results. Seeing her present her results with confidence at the end of the summer seminar series, I was proud of all she had accomplished in such a short time and knew that she had had a worthwhile experience.

I found, in mentoring, that I learned much more about myself and what I truly understood. For me, knowing that I made a positive impact in someone else’s career gave me the motivation to perform at my best, maintain a higher work ethic standard and never stop learning. Although it was more work on my part than anticipated, the extra time put in achieved both of our goals.

Next summer might be many months away, but I am already looking forward to having more summer interns.

["Paul Paul Sirajuddin (psirajul@jhmi.edu) is is a second-year radiation oncology postdoctoral fellow at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. A native of Michigan, he ventured to the East Coast for a postbaccalaurate fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in 2008 and then earned his Ph.D. from the Georgetown University Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in 2013.