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Internship grant program lets students follow their passions

Sara Shanahan swabs her tongue with a testing compound in a lab

Sara Shanahan received a $2,500 DU grant for an internship that normally would be unpaid. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Sara Shanahan couldn’t have landed a more perfect job.

The senior biology major with minors in psychology and neuroscience spent her summer working in the genetics of taste lab at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  Specifically, she studied the bitter taste bud and whether “our ability to taste bitter affects our diet and overall lifestyle.”

Perhaps more exciting for her is that the museum is the first in North America to have a community-supported lab, meaning museum visitors are recruited to participate. Although the lab is funded by the National Institutes of Health, it’s run by volunteers, lab techs and interns like Shanahan.

But her experience wouldn’t have happened without a gift she received from DU. This year, Shanahan was one of eight undergraduate students who received a $2,500 grant for an internship that normally would be unpaid.

“Many students work at summer jobs to earn money rather than take internships that would further their career development,” says John Haag, internship director in DU’s Career Center. “The grants allow deserving students to intern in situations that matter to their future.”

Committee members choose students they expect to grow professionally and personally throughout the course of the internship, explains Ruth Prochnow, who runs the grant program. More than 50 students apply each year.

“Even though it’s very rewarding to have the financial help from the grant, I feel the recognition alone was a great payoff,” Shanahan says. She says teaching the public about the world of genetics was “heartening.”

“I think the hard sciences like biology and chemistry are often stereotyped as being cold and difficult to understand by those who don’t focus study on them,” she says. “When I applied for this internship, I was really aiming to break down that wall.”

The program is a “win-win for both the student and for the organization,” Prochnow notes. Students have worked in locations ranging from Denver and Duluth, Minn., to Kuwait and Kenya. “It gives them much better focus on where they do or do not want to take their careers,” she says.

Not to mention giving them an edge in a tough job market that’s making internships more desirable than ever. Students with internship experience “undeniably” are more employable when they graduate, Prochnow says. “Internships are the new entry-level jobs.”

Senior international studies major Lauren Hartel was another of this year’s grant awardees. She worked for Project C.U.R.E., a nonprofit humanitarian organization that delivers donated medical supplies overseas. Within the first four weeks of her internship, she wrote a $25,000 grant proposal on her own.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity for me because I have a direct mentor who oversees my work and makes sure I am getting firsthand experience,” says Hartel, who got the internship primarily to learn how to write grants.

The internship program began about 10 years ago, says Mary Michaels Hawkins, director of the DU Career Center. It was based on an idea Chancellor Robert Coombe had while he was provost.

“He’s always had a strong focus on internships,” Hawkins says. Since its inception, the program has been funded by a $20,000 annual allocation from the provost’s office.

“It’s just great to support the students,” Hawkins says.


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