Takeaways from a Virtual Undergraduate Internship: Top Three Engaging Activities


By Lauren Aleksunes posted 01-07-2021 15:57

Interns received welcome packages
at their home prior to the start of
the six-week program. Kits for
various scientific and networking
activities were included.

The COVID-19 pandemic will leave its mark on the design and delivery of toxicology training for years to come. The challenges faced by the need for remote learning and social distancing have inspired reflection on existing teaching approaches as well as innovation in how toxicology educators engage the next generation of scientists moving forward. For the summer of 2020, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program at Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, like many other programs, moved to an online format as laboratories remained closed on campus. For over a decade, SURF has hosted and trained 20 to 30 undergraduate researchers each summer through mentored research projects, training in toxicology, and career development activities. As the directors and instructors of SURF sat down to adapt to a virtual environment in Spring 2020, we imagined new ways to deliver robust and engaging delivery of toxicology principles. The SURF program reflects on successes from 2020 and shares them with the toxicology community at large:

Testing for Lead in Home Drinking Water

Detailed procedures for sampling home
drinking water were provided to all interns.
For the past five years, the SURF program has engaged interns in field sampling for toxicants within the environment. From contaminated neighborhoods to home drinking water, interns are taught the proper techniques in collecting and recording specimens. In 2020, we adapted our activities into a two-part virtual session. The first training session included four components: (1) didactic lecture on lead toxicity, sampling drinking water, and quantitation by ICP/MS; (2) community perspective on lead contamination and remediation; (3) a simulated test of unknown lead levels; and (4) sampling of drinking water. The didactic lecture was delivered by a toxicology postdoc scholar (SOT member Cody Smith, PhD) and included polling questions to ensure intern comprehension and engagement. This was followed by a presentation by partners at Isles Inc., a nonprofit organization in Trenton, New Jersey, that works with residents to remediate homes with lead exposure. This perspective provided interns with the day-to-day impact of toxicants within the community. To roll up their sleeves and begin putting science into action, interns worked together in small breakout rooms to complete an adapted version of a Science Take-Out kit on lead toxicity. Materials were mailed to interns at the launch of the program and included nontoxic reagents that can be used to evaluate “blood” lead levels and determine the environmental source of lead exposure within the home. Then, interns moved on to real-world sampling; they collected drinking water from their homes and mailed them to Rutgers for ICP/MS quantitation. Four weeks later, students participated in a second virtual session to review lead levels in their drinking water and compare to local and national standards. Thankfully, all levels were low. Instructors also discussed causes of variability in heavy metal concentrations. Collectively, this comprehensive training provided hands-on understanding of the importance of environmental lead exposures.
Using a Science Take-Out kit, interns simulated the
testing of blood for lead levels as well as potential
sources of contamination.

Repurposing US FDA–Approved Drugs as Countermeasures for Chemical Threats

The risk of a terrorist attack in the US has created challenges on how to effectively treat toxicities that result from exposure to chemical weapons. To address this concern, the US has organized a trans-agency initiative across academia, government, and industry to develop and approve drugs to treat tissue injury resulting from exposure to chemical threat agents. One of the goals of SURF is to engage interns in training that advances this research mission. We developed a two-hour session that included
Use of the Zoom platform enabled collaboration with
NIH and the US Coast Guard in developing interactive
training sessions.
(1) an overview of the CounterACT program from David Jett, PhD (NIH Program Officer and SOT member); (2) original research in novel methodologies to evaluate drug efficacy from a toxicology PhD student; and (3) an interactive session. For the final session, teams of students were provided lists of US Food and Drug Administration–approved drugs to evaluate potential mechanisms of action and suitability as countermeasures for four chemical weapon case scenarios. As pre-work, teams researched the mechanisms of action, routes of administration, and clinical usage of 10–15 medications. During the live session, under the instruction of Joshua Gray, PhD (US Coast Guard Academy, SOT member), each team was provided a unique chemical weapon case (phosgene oxime–induced nettle pain, tetramethylenedisulfotetramine seizures, parathion neurotoxicity, and chlorine lung toxicity). Before assessing the potential therapeutic interventions, the teams created scoring rubrics that prioritized desired characteristics of an effective therapy. Then, three candidate drugs for repurposing in their case scenario were evaluated using the rubric. The top scoring drug was then developed into a grant “sales pitch” to SURF and National Institutes of Health (NIH) leadership and other interns, who voted on the most convincing presentation. Keys to the success of this activity were (1) inclusion of toxicology graduate students and postdocs to help assist the teams, (2) broad invitation across all virtual biomedical summer programs, and (3) collaboration with NIH and the US Coast Guard Academy.

Scientific Communication

Each team developed a rubric for assessing the
potential utility of repurposed drugs in treating
chemical weapon toxicity.
During our first session, over 80 interns received training in distilling their scientific message using three activities modeled after the practices of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. In small teams of four to five students with one moderator, interns attempted to use as much jargon as possible in describing their current research project. Each team nominated one intern for the competition within the main Zoom room. This activity exemplified how confusing science can sound when descriptions are dense with jargon and abbreviations. The next two activities followed the similar pattern of initial work and feedback in small breakout rooms followed by competition within the main Zoom room. These topics included (1) developing an analogy to describe the intern’s research project, and (2) creating a compelling newspaper headline for their science. Interns voted on which students had the best descriptions. To broaden the reach of sound science, researchers need to develop the skills to effectively communicate with diverse audiences. SURF hosted a series of training sessions to improve the communication skills for undergraduates participating in any Rutgers summer internship program.
An example graphical abstract developed by an
intern is shown.
Following this initial interactive session, SURF directors deconstructed the steps to creating effective written and graphical abstracts. Each intern developed a visually appealing graphical abstract that was used to communicate their science on LinkedIn. This activity not only enhanced the professional online presence of SURF interns, but also aided in the dissemination of their science and the overall SURF program.

Using formal and informal feedback approaches, SURF interns rated these activities quite high. As we move forward, we intend to expand these activities as part of our delivery of high-quality, interactive toxicology training. For toxicologists interested in adapting these activities for their instruction of undergraduates, contact Lauren Aleksunes, PharmD, PhD, by email for more information and access to materials.

The SURF program is supported by funding from NIH (R25ES020721, U54AR055073, P30ES005022), the Society of Toxicology, the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, and multiple units and partners at Rutgers University.

This blog is one of a series highlighting 2020 undergraduate intern research activities that were supported by SOT with funds administered by the Faculty United for Toxicology Undergraduate Recruitment and Education (FUTURE) Committee. Internship hosts can apply for matching funding for up to one-half of the cost for a summer undergraduate research position. The application deadline for 2021 is January 8. Relevant intern positions are listed on the “Internship Resources” of the SOT website whether or not they receive SOT support. Please send internship opportunity information to SOT Headquarters.