Let me make one thing clear: I took one very large step outside of my comfort zone when I decided to spend this summer immersed in a medical research and health policy internship. Between the months of August and May at Duke, I spend 75% of my time in the world of STEM—I’m majoring in Chemistry, I work in a Duke Med research laboratory in the department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, and I volunteer with multiple organizations in Duke Hospital. I’ve never taken a class in public policy. Until four weeks ago, I’d never written a policy brief. And before I stepped foot on the grounds of the National Institutes of Health in May, all I really knew about the NIH was that it has an intimidating campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and that it is responsible for funding a LOT of the nation’s biomedical research.
I knew I would be in a bit over my head when I started this internship, but I confidently took that step and have come to be so glad I did.
With help from Dr. Bob Cook-Deegan and his limitless connections in DC, I was able to find a placement at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), which is one of 27 component institutes and centers of the NIH. The NIH is among the largest biomedical research institutions in the world—for FY2016, it received $32 billion from Congress to fund intramural and extramural research. Genetics and genomics have long been one of my strongest academic interests, and so I jumped at the opportunity to work in the Institute that is the heart of the nation’s genomics research.
What I thought would be an introduction to biomedical research policy has evolved into an experience much greater than that. Although we’re only halfway through the summer, I’ve gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the entire world of the U.S. government as it relates to biomedical research. I’ve spent afternoons at the FDA and on Capitol Hill, listening in on meetings and Congressional Briefings. I’ve attended various workshops hosted by the NHGRI and National Academies and have several more scheduled for the upcoming weeks. I’ve authored briefs, followed issues in the media, conducted interviews with researchers and other experts in genomics, and have been lucky enough to see my work being put to use by those above me in the Institute. Perhaps the greatest realization I’ve made, though, is that the brilliant people with whom I’m working every day share many of my scientific interests—they just took those interests on a career path different from the one I’ve always set my mind to.
Just as valuable and memorable are the experiences I’ve had outside of my internship. From witnessing the one of the biggest Supreme Court decisions of the year with Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, to trekking through Piscataway National Park, and from watching Independence Day fireworks over Mount Vernon, and two days later, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to spending late nights at Kramerbooks & Afterwords catching up on all the reading I miss out on during the school year, I’ve loved and felt at home in Washington, DC since I arrived. This city and DukeEngage has already given me more than I imagined in these first four weeks—I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the next four.