Student view:

Alana O'Mara: NIH intern

Sept. 10, 2014

Alana O'Mara is a junior in the Lyman Briggs College. She spent her summer as an intern with The National Institutes of Health.

Thanks to Lyman Briggs College,  I was able to find a summer internship with The National Institutes of Health, located in Bethesda, Maryland right outside of Washington, D.C. Applying for this internship was a complicated process. I had to submit the standard application, resume, transcripts and letters of recommendation, but then I also had to send out emails directly to investigators and researchers that I wanted to work with at the NIH. I sent brief emails to about four investigators. No response. “Oh well”, I told myself..."at least I tried.” But that is not my mentality; I really wanted this internship.

Luckily enough, I have been doing research on campus for Dr. Lorraine Robbins on improving physical activity in adolescent girls in urban areas. At the end of the year, I was given the opportunity to present a poster with a co-worker at MSU’s Pediatric Research Day.


Photo courtesy of Alana O'Mara

Before the poster presentation, various speakers came in to discuss their research in pediatrics. The opening presenter was Dr. Susan Shurin, a member of the NIH who presented work on childhood obesity. After my presentation, I went back to my dorm room and threw out some of the papers, but I held on to the binder with Dr. Shurin’s information and presentation. That binder sat in my dorm for a while as I considered whether to send the NIH another email. I already was too late in the game, plus no one wanted me in the first place. Finally I decided to send just one more email.

At the time, I did not know that Dr. Shurin was the deputy director at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute at the NIH. I sent her an email thanking her for the presentation, mentioning that I had applied as a summer intern at the NIH, and asking if I could work with her or if she had any recommendations for whom else I should contact. A week later, she flooded me with various advisors to contact. It was incredible; I had found my chance at last! Within a few weeks, I was matched with Vicki Pemberton at the NHLBI. Vicki Pemberton works in the cardiovascular division managing pediatric grants and contracts. It was a pleasure working with her!

I worked on various projects with Vicki as well as attended seminars, sat in on conferences and talked with other doctors and researchers in the NHLBI branch. One of the biggest problems the NIH is facing today is a shrinking budget. To address this, each division is trying to define what a ‘good’ grant is. How do you measure how successful a research grant will be or how much impact it might have?

My project, Portfolio Analysis, looked at all of the grants the NHLBI awarded over the last few years and used data about each one to see if there are any predictors for success. We defined success in terms of meeting recruitment numbers or meeting the budget. Other studies in the division looked at success in terms of number of citations.

It is interesting to hear about the problems and cost of the review process from grantees. I’ve learned that different countries give out grant money in different ways. For example, in Britain’s system, the universities or research institutes with the best portfolios get the most grant money. This directly related to one of my history, philosophy, and sociology of science classes in which we discussed cumulative advantage and the Matthew effect: “those with more, tend to get more.”  It’s also interesting to see that most of the principal investigator’s of grants are men, which reflects another discussion from my HPS class involving gender disparity in research. 

I also sat in on multiple discussions surrounding the project on sudden infant deaths and sudden cardiac deaths in young people. This project is starting up in collaboration with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This was a truly intriguing project for me to be involved with as an athlete because the majority of cases we hear about in the news are from young athletes suddenly dying. Our hope is to find a link, maybe in the child’s environment or genes that can lead us to understand why he or she suddenly died.

Obviously this has large implications for biology. But I am also beginning to see how important ethics and writing are. For example, the consent forms we had to write to give to parents after their child has just died are extremely difficult to word. You have to be mindful of their recent loss but also explain all the science and information needed to research their child.

Lastly, worked on getting out information for our Children and Clinical Studies Facebook page and website. This is important to all the families and children that want to learn more about research. We hoped these sites help to make the idea of children and research a positive one, not something that frightens families.

My workdays were definitely full. Some of them were more tedious than others, but one of the greatest things is that I was in our nation’s capital! I felt like in just a few weeks here I made more friends than I have back home. Everyone there is an intern or new, and they just want to meet people. It makes it very easy to get along with everyone, plus you share similar interests.

I was lucky to have two friends in the area at the same time, and we all got to explore Washington, D.C. together. There are great restaurants, live music concerts, museums and trails (I cannot underestimate the beauty of a dirt trail in a big city). I wanted to do and see everything! I would definitely stay longer, but sadly I have a study abroad in Switzerland to attend...(maybe not that sadly).

This piece originally ran on the Lyman Briggs College website.