The virtual internship program 2020 – Not even a pandemic can stop the epigenetics@HMGU community from promoting young scientists

The Summer Internship Program in Epigenetics, Stem Cells and Cellular Plasticity is an integral part of the annual activities of the epigenetics@HMGU research community. As consequence of the pandemic, the 2020 round was nearly cancelled. However, the joint efforts of Human Resources, the epigenetics@HMGU office and the participating PIs had made it possible to launch the first virtual internship program at epigenetics@HMGU for computational projects.

Since 2016, the annual Summer Internship Program in Epigenetics, Stem Cells and Cellular Plasticity has invited highly talented and motivated undergraduate and first year master’s students from all around the world to Helmholtz Zentrum München to work alongside the outstanding scientists of the epigenetics@HMGU research community. For eight weeks, the interns recruited through an international and highly competitive call join their host lab and get a glimpse into the real world of science. Conceptualized by the founding institutes and the epigenetics@HMGU office, the program gives students waiting in the wings for a career in science the opportunity to learn how to approach a scientific project. This includes how to plan and perform experiments, how to develop and apply computational approaches, and how to discuss their data with experts. Moreover, during the internship period the students participate in lab meetings, retreats, seminars and group activities fully incorporated into the life and activities of their host lab and of the epigenetics@HMGU community during their research stay.

The program is known for its extraordinary topic variety around the main research field ‘Epigenetics’ featuring cellular plasticity and reprogramming, metabolic diseases, artificial intelligence, plant and environmental research, systems biology, development, immunology and epidemiology. Over the past four years, the popularity of the program has rapidly grown among students world-wide and the members of epigenetics@HMGU. The disappointment was huge following the announcement that the Summer Internship Program 2020 had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. 

“Everyone understood our reasoning behind the decision. Other internship programs had been cancelled, so the applicants were not surprised by this measure. The situation world-wide got too unpredictable.”, said Amelie J. Kraus, the scientific coordinator of epigenetics@HMGU. However, for many students it meant that they could not pursue any internship this year and gain practical experience in science required for their studies. Thus, there was great support for a virtual internship from all sides, even though it had to be restricted to computational projects. 

Seven interns from Mexico, Russia, Australia, Spain, Brazil and Switzerland participated in the first virtual internship program of epigenetics@HMGU and even though the remote supervision was challenging at times, the program was a huge success. 

Despite the fact that the internship was virtual, I was able to meet my colleagues weekly and they were always ready to answer my questions or guide me. The only disadvantage of doing an internship virtually is the lack of networking with other interns”, said Polina Shpudeiko, the intern of Dr. Antonio Scialdone (Institute for Epigenetics and Stem Cells).

Soon, the call for the Summer Internship Program 2021 will open to new prospective interns. 

With the virtual internship, we have reacted very quickly to the pandemic situation. The main goal of the internship is to train the next generation of future scientist and to achieve it we had to adapt.”, said Dr. Astrid Lunkes, the Director of the Strategy & Management Office of epigenetics@HMGU. “Overall, it went really well.” Even though, the social component of an on-campus internship, as well as the experiences of the daily lab routine, networking, visiting Munich etc. are missing, the virtual setting has some distinct advantages. The only requirement is a functional internet connection. Thus, the virtual setting is very more inclusive and can be done from everywhere. Since traveling is not required, it has a lower CO2-footprint, which should not be disregarded in times of the climate crisis. This year’s program will feature both settings – virtual and on-campus – depending on the preference of the supervisor. 

In total, we can offer 11 different projects this year. The wet-lab projects need to be on-campus, of course. However, because of the virtual setting, more than the half are computational projects that require deep learning algorithms and artificial intelligence.”, said Amelie Kraus. Applied artificial intelligence finds its way more and more into industry, science, healthcare and society. Thus, training of the new generation of scientists operating at the intersection of computer science and biomedicine is a key to develop and apply deep learning and artificial intelligence which are effective, ethical and empowering to scientists and users alike.

For further information about the Summer Internship Program 2021, go here.