Since it was launched in 1998, the Peter and Rosalie Johnson Internship Program has provided paid research opportunities for more than 400 students in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering.
Created at the initiative of chemical engineering alumnus Peter Johnson ’55 and his wife, Rosalie, the program was endowed with a $2.4 million gift in 2008. Each spring, about 25 qualified first-year students are matched with research labs on campus, or with one of Oregon State’s academic partners.
In addition to a good, paid summer job and valuable training on laboratory equipment, Johnson Interns gain confidence and new perspectives from their research experience.
The Johnson program is special, says Professor Skip Rochefort, who administers the program, because there are very few comparable, intensive research opportunities available for students with only one year of schooling under their belts. The experience that Johnson Interns acquire in their first summer can be instrumental in assuring their future success.
“Our students compete nationally for internships and undergraduate research experience programs,” said Rochefort. “To be competitive for these positions, they need to have demonstrated mastery of skills not widely taught or practiced at other schools. This is what the Johnson Internship provides them in the summer following their first year.”
Bleeding for science
Nicole Laschober, a bioengineering junior, has spent the past two summers working at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in the lab of Owen McCarty, examining the clotting mechanisms at work in blood platelets. From the beginning, she says, it was a hands-on learning experience.
“I was in the lab every day, working with fresh blood,” she said. “Going in, I didn’t realize at all what the job was going to be like. So in retrospect, I guess it’s a good thing I’m not squeamish. The blood I worked with was often my own, so I got to learn a lot about my own platelet count.”
Laschober says her platelet count wasn’t the only thing she learned about herself during her time at OHSU.
“I also figured out that I really enjoy doing research,” she said. “And I like being at a lab bench. That has helped me to focus. I’m thinking I might want to go to graduate school, and I’m looking around at different labs.”
The work Laschober was involved in during her first summer led to publication in a peer-reviewed journal, where she was the third-listed author. And last fall, she presented a research poster at the annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society in Phoenix, Arizona.
Kendra Jones, a bioengineering sophomore, joined Laschober last summer in McCarty’s lab, where she worked on a research project examining the unique properties of platelets in newborn babies. And, just like her fellow student, Jones had the opportunity to shed a little blood for her research. But for her, that wasn’t the scary part, she says.
“I was very nervous going in, just because it was OHSU, and it’s kind of a big deal,” she said. “But there’s really no reason to be nervous. You just need to slow down, and know that you know things. I think my biggest problem was that I was just a first-year student and I felt like I didn’t have enough background in engineering or biology. But you learn on the spot.”
Jones says the experience was a transformative moment in her educational career.
“Looking back, I gained so much confidence in myself,” she said. “I can see how my education lines up with a future career. It was hard to see that before.”
Getting a close-up view of the field
Joe Hebert, now a sophomore in chemical engineering, spent his summer on campus in the lab of Professor Greg Herman. There, he worked alongside another intern, using atomic force microscopy to examine the orientation of a certain type of chemical structure, called beta-Keggin clusters, on a graphite surface. The research has implications for the development of new materials for microprocessors.
Hebert says he had looked at a few scientific papers detailing the standard operating procedures for the instrument, but even just assimilating the required technical vocabulary presented a big challenge up front.
“It was very intimidating — until that first day,” Hebert said. “My partner and I were immediately introduced to the graduate students who took us under their wing. They showed us how to use the equipment and what to watch out for.”
Hebert says he had always envisioned himself focusing on the pharmaceutical side of chemical engineering because of his personal interests and family background. However, his experience with the Johnson program has expanded his horizons.
“It kind of opened my eyes to how broad chemical engineering can be,” he said. “There are so many other fields that are extremely interesting. The doors are wide open.”
Bioengineering with beads
Kelly Hollenbeck, also a sophomore in chemical engineering, worked with bioengineering Assistant Professor Kate Schilke on a project to engineer tiny beads made of bionanoparticles. These beads are coated with various proteins that give rise to different surface properties, making them useful in a host of potential bioengineering and biomedical applications.
The beads Hollenbeck worked with are grown in a type of cell that typically is fed with glucose. Hollenbeck’s project involved growing the cells on an alternative substrate, 1-4, butanediol. Growing the beads was a long process that involved learning a lot of different microbiology techniques, including the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Getting time on that equipment is a rare experience for an undergraduate, Hollenbeck said, let alone a first-year student.
“I got so many things out of the experience,” Hollenbeck said. “I learned how to work in a lab environment, individually, with peers, and in groups. I learned how to present my findings, both written and orally. That was a big part of our group, actually. We really had to communicate a lot, because there were so many projects going on at once.”
Hollenbeck says the knowledge she gained over the summer helped to consolidate what she had learned in class during her first year. But more than that, she says, she felt the work she was doing had value beyond what it could do for her.
“I could definitely see how the stuff I was learning in the classroom applied to real-world applications,” she said. “But knowing that I was working on something that was real, and that has the potential to help people — that was a really a cool experience.”
Applications due March 30
Applications for the 2018 Johnson Internship Program are due March 30. First-year students who meet the eligibility requirements are encouraged to apply. Those with questions may contact Skip Rochefort directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.