BioTrain program gets interns ready for biotech careers

News Outlet:

The Huntsville Times

By Budd McLaughlin

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – After lunch today, about two dozen interns at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology will be unleashed into the world of biotech research.

The group – which includes high school, undergrad and grad students – wrapped up a one-week "biotech boot camp" Friday under the tutelage of Dr. Bob Zahorchak , the administrator of intern activities at HudsonAlpha.

"This (boot camp) gives them the experience for when they go into their internships," he said. "Here they have a chance to make mistakes because mistakes will be made."

The interns – wearing lab coats in bright shades of orange, green and even tie-dyed (there are also the standard white coats) – are divided into small groups at the boot camp, which is the first week of BioTrain, the summer internship program offered through  HudsonAlpha.

"They interact with each other in the groups," Zahorchak said. "The high school students aren’t necessarily intimidated by the college students."

Interaction and collaboration are key elements of BioTrain, a reflection of the institute’s emphasis on collaboration in all aspects – from working to networking to, even, lunch breaks in the bistro. The design of the facility reflects that philosophy with offices open to the center and scores of informal meeting areas.

Company CEOs can be seen at tables with interns, staff and, in some cases, visitors.

Dr. Adam Hott, HudsonAlpha’s coordinator of educational outreach, related a story of how a group of interns learned first-hand about the institute’s interaction policy.

"One of the resident company CEOs was at a table by himself when a group of interns sat down," Hott said. "They talked among themselves, not knowing who was there with them.

"We were watching this unfold and when they finished and went back (to their labs), we spoke with them."

He said the students were asked who they had lunch with and they pointed to each other. "I asked, ‘Did you notice who else was at the table?’"

A couple said they did notice the man.

"Did you introduce yourself? Did you speak with him?" Hott said he asked the students.

"They said ‘no’," Hott said. "When I told them who he was, their jaws dropped and they had ‘deer in the headlights’ looks.

"They realized they had missed possibly a career opportunity."

Hott said the intern program –  HudsonAlpha had some 300 applications for 33 positions this summer – is catching on with the companies at the institute. The boot camp is a week-long orientation session, which alleviates the companies’ need to use that time to get their interns acclimated.

It’s not unusual for companies to spend a lot of time getting their interns up to speed when there is so little time in the summer. In this program, the interns are ready to step in, saving that company man-hours and expense.

"The companies like it," Hott said. "It’s a win-win for everyone."

Hott said the students, who make three choices  on their applications of where they would like to intern, go through the "gamut of basic biotech."

A weekly professional development series teaches the interns the professional behavior and expectations of their chosen field. There are also sessions in networking, resume building and corporate branding.

"They meld together quickly," Michele Morris, an educational outreach research assistant, said of the groups. "And we let them know not to be afraid to make mistakes.

"We emphasize you never get bad results. You just didn’t get the results you expected."