Training the Next-Generation STEM Workforce
It’s mid-July and the sun is beating down on the quiet University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, but the climate-controlled Life Science Laboratories (LSL) is buzzing with activity. At the Human Motion Lab in the Center for Human Health and Performance (CH2P) core facility, several UMass Amherst undergraduates are sticking retroreflective markers and EMGs all over the body of Ben Arms ’23 (pictured at top).
The students are interns this summer through the Core Summer Internship Program, and the sensors, paired with other equipment in the lab, allow them to track movement and muscle activation for research purposes. The program is a paid 10-week internship through the UMass Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which offers students hands-on research experience as well as valuable soft-skills training and networking opportunities. It is highly competitive, with several hundred students applying each year for approximately 20 spots, according to Hannah Choi, IALS student outreach coordinator and center administrator, who oversees the summer internship program. Students who are selected are placed in a variety of Core Facilities, 30 state-of-the-art labs offering advanced technologies and expertise in the areas of life sciences; cellular, molecular, and animal sciences; manufacturing, engineering, and material sciences; and human health.
The program—jointly funded by IALS, the Office of the Provost, and the five UMass colleges affiliated with IALS (natural science, engineering, computer science, public health, and nursing)—has grown and evolved since its inception five years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic drove the whole program remote in 2020, but in 2021, the program followed a hybrid model.
“It’s been great to be back fully in-person this summer,” said Choi, noting the opportunities for hands-on experiential learning and cohort building.
The program is open to rising sophomores through seniors and attracts undergraduates from a variety of backgrounds—from the life sciences and engineering to psychology and computer science—reflecting the wide breadth spanned by the Core Facilities themselves. Some students come into the program having previously done research, though it is not required, and all gain valuable experience with high-grade equipment, software, and data analysis, as well as soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and networking.
It’s been eye-opening to me.... It’s amazing to see the power of research to solve real-world problems, like diagnosing diseases or making the elderly safer in their homes.
Arms, who hails from Ashland, is a biomedical engineering student. His summer internship in the Human Motion Lab is his first research experience; he decided to pursue the internship to see if he would enjoy research as a potential future career. In the lab, he and other students are contributing to several research projects, including working with participants, data processing, and ensuring data quality. Their main project involves developing a wearable device from scratch—a shoe insole that provides valuable activity monitoring and could drive clinical interventions in the future. “Currently, only lab-grade equipment can achieve this,” explained Ramzi Majaj, a biomechanics scientist in the lab.
Down the hall in the CH2P, Remi Hirsh ’24, a biology major from Sharon, is working on a different study, an industry partnership that involves putting smart devices in participants’ homes to track their habits. In the past, Hirsh has done research with mice, so she was excited to have the opportunity to work with humans this summer.
“It’s been eye-opening to me. Working with industry, things happen so quickly. It’s amazing to see the power of research to solve real-world problems, like diagnosing diseases or making the elderly safer in their homes,” she said.
Through another door in the CH2P, a group of summer interns in the Sleep Monitoring Lab is practicing setting up a cap covered with electrodes on the head of one of the students.
One of the UMass interns in the lab, Annika Berlin ’24 (pictured above, back center), a psychology major from upstate New York, said she was drawn to the Core Summer Internship Program because it offered both research experience and professional development. She had read research studies by Rebecca Spencer, the facility director, and found them fascinating. The internship experience has offered her the chance to work on a variety of projects at every stage of the process. The interns work on IRB approvals, research design, and timelines, as well as interact with research subjects, ranging in age from babies to older adults.
“It’s really cool to see an idea turn into a research project,” said Berlin.
In the Light Microscopy Facility, a Nikon Center of Excellence, intern Ryan Dougherty ’25 (pictured below), a biochemistry major from Sudbury, is working on a different type of project this summer: creating a series of explanatory videos on basic microscopy for internal and external users. The project is sponsored by UMass Amherst alumni Hilary Ratner ’76 MS, ’79 PhD and Stuart “Stu” Ratner ’81 PhD, whose gifts to UMass help support training programs and student research in the Light Microscopy Facility.
“We're taking footage of how to care for a microscope, clean it, maintain it, not damage parts,” he explained. “We’re also making tutorials on concepts and procedures, like certain illumination techniques or saturation.”
Dougherty plans to pursue a PhD down the road, and possibly work in the industry simultaneously. He believes gaining this type of in-depth knowledge of microscopes will be valuable in the future.
“Experience with all the microscopes in this facility is really hard to come by,” he said. “By training other users, it lets me learn a lot more about each microscope, along with general customer support and technology skills, and tidbits of biology and neuroscience from projects people bring to us.”
Up on the fourth floor of the LSL, Kadri Williams ’23 (pictured below, right), a mechanical engineering major from Windsor, Connecticut, is working in the Advanced Digital Design and Fabrication (ADDFab) facility. She applied for the internship in order to learn the basics of additive manufacturing—an industry she hopes to work in after graduating. This summer, she has learned how to operate, clean, and maintain the industrial-grade, state-of-the-art 3D printers in the facility, and has trained outside users on them. She has also worked on designs for clients, and has learned a variety of technical and soft skills, like communication and customer interface.
Another ADDFab intern, Devin Dixon ’23 (pictured below, left), is a mechanical engineering major from Amherst. Though he has previously worked in this facility during the academic year, the summer internship offers a much more intensive experience.
“I’m here eight hours a day, so I’m getting to work on many more interesting projects and developing skills to be more independent in my work,” he said. “I’ve been talking to a lot of clients, learning about the problems they’re trying to solve, and figuring out how to help with the equipment in this facility.”
Dixon plans to work in the additive manufacturing industry after graduating. Through the internship, he has worked with industry standard printers as well as toured a company in the field.
“I feel very fortunate for this opportunity. I can’t think of a better way to be prepared,” he said.
This story was originally published in July 2022.