“… the easiest way to open someone’s mind is to put them in a different setting. Taking people out of the classroom catalyzes creativity….
Out there, experiences are highly variable.”
—Dr. Terry Jernigan,
Director for the Center for Human Development, UCSD
I can still clearly remember the time when I hated science—hate is a strong word, but I detested it, loathed the idea of it. My lowest grades were in science classes, even though I spent most of my homework time studying those subjects. It was my educational bane, a blight that I was sure would remain throughout all my years of schooling. Thus, when it came time to choose an internship, as all juniors in my school must do, I surprised myself by securing one at the Center for Human Development at UCSD, a scientific research center that conducts studies across neuropsychological disciplines.
It was a risk—a big risk—that I was willing to take. Really, my interest in psychology had no concrete basis and was only sparked by what I had heard about school psychology. The first day “on the job” I was excited to be an intern, but also a little cynical about the place of work I had chosen. Would this be the right environment for me? I didn’t have to wonder long.
Every day, on the drive to UCSD, I found myself looking forward to learning more about psychology or cognition in the developing mind, to watching subject testing from the observation room, to hearing about the progress of research studies I wasn’t involved in. I especially looked forward to those exciting moments of discovery that happened just by sitting in meetings—when the researchers found a significant correlation between brain-scan data and test results, or were able to say that the results of a study would benefit the whole neuropsychological research community, or most importantly, children.
I was able to intern with a number of researchers, from undergraduates who worked as paid interns to graduate professionals, postdoctoral fellows to Dr. Jernigan herself. These were real scientists doing real things, making a difference. I enjoyed talking about science with them, learning more every day about what it means to do research, to do things that could change lives. Could this really be science—that thing of my life before internship—that I had despised? No. I realized that my previous feelings had been shallow and ungrounded. Now I was experiencing science first-hand.
Starting the second week, I also looked forward to a newfound interest I had discovered while working on my internship project: computer programming. All interns are required to complete a project, an end product that serves as evidence that they did more than get coffee, file papers, or run errands. For my project, I assisted the PING research study Project Manager, Connor McCabe, and postdoctoral fellow Erik Newman in creating an emotional/social test for an upcoming normative, longitudinal research study that would track five-year-olds for five years. The test would track the kids’ social awareness by testing their ability to recognize facial emotions. It just so happened that my fellow researchers wanted it to be a computer test, though neither of them (nor I) knew anything about the sort of programming we needed to do. Nonetheless, I researched the code that we were using and found out many of the basics. I read diligently and tried to understand the various logic statements and how to write them. Soon, I was looking forward to coming into the office to program—or attempt to program—this psychological test.
It was ironic to think that only months before I had been put off by any mention of science or mathematics. But here I was, high up within a building whose namesake would have previously driven me away—the Applied Physics & Math building. This monolithic structure of concrete jutting seven stories into the sky does not look like a place to be reckoned with.
During that time, I got to know both Erik and Connor well. Here I was, at the relatively young age of sixteen (though many college students thought I was one of them), with the amazing opportunity of working with a man in his early thirties who had earned his Doctorate, and another who was being contacted by UC Davis and other colleges for graduate programs. Both treated me like another researcher, just a new colleague, and treated me with the same amount of respect and responsibility they gave to everyone else.
One of the things I also noticed was what I will call “intelligent ease.” These were educated professionals, some of the best and brightest in neuropsychology, leading studies conducted throughout the nation. Yet, they came to work dressed casually and were usually relaxed and calm. I had expected lab coats and bow ties, tense scientific concentration and even more intense spectacled scrutiny. The researchers I worked with conducted studies and discovered findings that mattered to the world, but without all the scientific cliché I had expected.
My experience with these great researchers is most accurately embodied on a simple coffee mug. It was on my second day, when Connor and I went to get a cup of Joe in the small office kitchenette, when I was bestowed with the cup. A white mug sat alone on the shelf—the last one left—as if it was waiting for me. Only when I went back to my office with my cup of coffee did I read the words on the cup and realize their humorously coincidental significance. The blue text stated: “Career Connection: Creating Opportunities” with a UCSD logo below. I instantly recalled my humanities teacher explaining why internships are important: so that students can create connections with college-educated, non-related professionals in an environment outside of school. Of all the mugs I could have ended up with, through some twist of fate I was granted the one that summed up one of my main goals as an intern.
Internship was transformative for me in other ways as well. I realized that if I enjoyed something like this—something I would have never considered as a sophomore, something I was unsure about but did anyway—than perhaps it would be wise to be more open to ideas, possibilities, and opportunities that I might have outright ignored in the past. What else out there might spark my interest? Internship confirmed my interest in Psychology and stimulated my curiosity in the sciences, but there is so much more out there, waiting—interests, passions, fields, areas of work and study, things I’ve yet to see or hear about.
In my mentor interview with Dr. Terry Jernigan, she expressed that in any educational or vocational journey, we need to be open, searching for opportunities, looking for what will spark our interest. Her words of advice and wisdom are great guides to having successful internships and a satisfying future. One of my favorite phrases that Dr. Jernigan said was that good professionals in any field must sometimes “go against the zeitgeist”—the prevalent ideas and intellectual trends. She agreed that internship goes against the educational zeitgeist; internship challenges students to take on real responsibilities and work that matters, and trusts them to learn from their experiences in the real world. In the end, no matter how optimal a curriculum is, we can’t force students to learn anything. But we can place students in situations that stimulate their thoughts and minds to the best of our ability, that hopefully surprise them, and see what they take away. I, for one, received no formal instruction during my internship. Yet, my life has taken a new direction. My mind has opened up and my horizons have expanded to encompass things I never saw before because, in truth, I didn’t let myself see them.
A messy, almost illegible scrawl in my blue notebook reads: My Life & Internship & Opportunities & Career Connections & Education Possibilities & Career Choices….
All of those ampersands have connected the many different experiences of internship together, like a chain or sort of progression, in what I like to call the ‘Tralfamadorian perspective.’ In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, he talks about aliens called Tralfamadorians, who see in the fourth dimension. Their sight makes it so that everything they see is in a linear yet simultaneous timeline, from conception to death—past, present, and future all lined up in a row, all at once. During my internship, I started seeing things in a new dimension, with all the experiences of the past, opportunities of the present, and possibilities of the future displayed before me.
The world is no longer a flat plane that consists of music, art, humanities—all of the subjects I had enjoyed and that I thought comprised my career and education possibilities. Now, the earth is a round orb of all the disciplines—ones I’d loved, subjects of newfound interest, and fields not yet discovered—with endless possibilities beneath the surface. My future career choices and possibilities are like dozens of Venn diagrams, with learning extending across boundaries and so many options that honestly, life feels a little overwhelming. Where do I go from here?
If something else comes up that catches my attention and inspires me to pursue it, I know what to do. I’ll keep adding onto my list of life experiences –another ampersand, another internship.
“I have never let schooling interfere with my education.”
This is one of my favorite quotes from Mark Twain; it embodies the spirit of internship and also the goal of continued learning throughout life. No matter what I am doing, regardless of where I have gone or have yet to go, I have made a promise to myself to never close my mind. Learning does not have to be an accumulation of knowledge or information; I believe it can be a gathering of wisdom, strength, and experiences that will get you where you want to go. Internship is that compromise between education from school and education from real-world experience—it brings both together in an optimal educational situation for the student. I hope that all educators come to believe that “going against the zeitgeist” can stimulate and motivate their students more than the most “optimal” classroom curriculum ever will.