Internships solidify research career path for Penn State science student

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Internships and externships can be valuable experiences that help you define your career path. Sarah Chang, a junior in biochemistry and molecular biology, has participated in both experiences as a Penn State science student.

Chang, a Braddock Scholar, chose to participate in her first internship as soon as possible -- the summer after her freshman year. She joined the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Research Institute Summer Scholars Program to study a key epigenetic modification underlying pediatric cancers to reveal new opportunities for targeted therapies. “It was an extremely stimulating experience that revealed not only the challenge of conducting biomedical research, but also how thrilling it is to be at the forefront of discovering something new,” she says. “I was pushed to think much more creatively than I was used to.”

During the spring semester of her sophomore year, she decided to shadow a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital as part of an externship program offered by Penn State Science’s Office of Career and International Education. During this experience, Chang shadowed Dr. Witham, a neurosurgeon, for two days; one day was spent in the clinic and one was spent in the operating room. This two-day externship allowed Chang to observe both doctor-patient care and a unique surgery—from the operating room. “It was eye-opening to have the ‘neurosurgeon for the day’ experience. I found it really insightful to see the variation in patients Dr. Witham would consult, both in their cultural backgrounds and how that influenced the doctor-patient relationship.”

This past summer, Chang took on another internship, this time with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai as part of their Summer Undergraduate Research Program. She and a graduate student investigated the biology of Ret fusion proteins that drive papillary thyroid cancer using fruit fly models. “Both this experience and the research experience at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have solidified my desire to conduct research in the future,” Chang says. “Not only did I learn new techniques and clever approaches scientists use to answer their questions, but more importantly, I left these experiences trained not to fear trying something unheard of. This innovation can eventually lead to novel discoveries.”

Chang feels the Penn State Science community has helped her achieve so much. “It’s a supportive atmosphere with faculty, staff, and peers who are always willing to extend a hand.” She is also excited by the close proximity of her coursework to research discoveries. “I’m very lucky to take classes in buildings that also house new findings and cutting-edge research. I’m even more lucky to be able to contribute to it -- the real hands-on experience Penn State Science students can get is pretty phenomenal.”

When she graduates in 2016, Chang has a lot of ideas about what sort of career she wants to pursue. She would like to complete an medical doctor/doctoral degree to apply results she finds in a lab to healthcare patients. “It’s just so cool to interpret data and make a mental image of what could be happening at the cellular and molecular level and then realize how many people this could positively affect.” After becoming a learning assistant, an undergraduate student recruited to help facilitate small group work in large-enrollment science classes, Chang discovered a love for teaching and would like to find an outlet for that as part of her career, too. “I hope to spend some time after I graduate teaching and expanding academic opportunities to students in under-resourced areas.”

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