An Internship That Taught me Science, Networking, and Most Importantly – Confidence

By: Alexandra Filipkwoski

“Dear Alexandra, please find that attached letter of acceptance into our summer program at Vanderbilt. From, Dr. Joey Barnett.”

My heart dropped. I had to sit down and re-read the email to indeed make sure this wasn’t some nicely worded rejection letter. 

I had done it – I had gotten accepted to my first research internship. 

Throughout the PAECER – SURE Cardiovascular research internship I have taken away plethora of skills; however, three of the most prominent takeaways were my newfound ability to communicate science to different audiences, my ability to remain resilient despite facing criticism from content experts, and my ability to tackle “imposter syndrome” through communicating with professionals I aspire to be like. 

This summer I have started to value the importance of scientific communication and now believe it is one of the most unappreciated but most important parts of science. I used to believe that the best presenters convey their information via lengthy paragraphs with complex jargon – I thought the fancier you sounded, the better communicator you ‘technically’ were; however, this is far from the truth. Through creating a video animation directed at a lay audience of women who are or want to be pregnant I started to devalue the complexity of scientific terminology, and instead embrace simplifying science. 

Furthermore, through making my video I was able to collaborate with content experts such as Dr. Ann Kavanaugh, where I received an honest, helpful and much-needed experience with constructive criticism. To elaborate, my research team and I submitted our video for commentary, and being the rookie scientific researcher I am, I believed that we would receive cliché comments such as “nice job girls” or “looking forward to seeing what else you girls do with the video” – however, this was far from the truth. Dr. Ann Kavanaugh emailed my research team and I back with a 3 page document with a minute by minute breakdown of flaws from our video. In this breakdown, Dr. Kavanaugh essentially told us that she didn’t think our initial topic of smoking and development of congenital heart had enough correlation. Dr. Kavanaugh suggested that we explore the correlation between maternal smoking and preterm births. This being said, my research team had to edit a significant portion of our original video, adjust our survey, edit our learning objective in order to look at maternal smoking through the lens of preterm birth. I have experienced adversity and resilience in sports, friendships, schoolwork, but never in terms of scientific research. Thus, this adversity allowed me to learn how to respond and edit my research after receiving criticism, all the while maintaining confidence in my abilities as a blossoming scientist.

Additionally, this summer I was able to start to tackle a lingering problem called “Imposter Syndrome” by regularly communicating with researchers and doctors, which helped ignite a sense of belonging in the field of science. Initially when I started the PAECER-SURE internship I thought that networking and talking with colleagues would be a ‘secondary’ benefit to the program; however, it ended up being my greatest takeaway. By communicating with the likes of Dr. Joey Barnett, Dr. Kendra Oliver, Dr. Andre Churchwell, and other elite researchers and doctors from Vanderbilt, Stanford, Northwestern and Boston University I have become confident in my career path to become a physician. I never thought I would be smart enough to work alongside such great minds; however, this was a completely false narrative I had made up for myself. Additionally, because I was given the opportunity to converse with these professionals I believe I have gained a greater network and potential mentors to help guide me on my career path to become a doctor.  

In conclusion, I came into the PAECER-SURE Cardiovascular research internship thinking that I would maybe learn some new wet lab techniques, whether that be in person or online; however I came out with new knowledge on scientific communication, cardiovascular disease, and most importantly a newfound confidence in myself as an aspiring physician. I am so grateful for the NIH, American Heart Association, Dr. Joey Barnett, Dr. Kendra Oliver and everyone at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine who were advocates for continuing the program online. 

I came into this summer intimated by the accolades and research experiences of my colleagues. I came into this summer shy and scared to talk to the professionals I aspired to be. However, I am leaving this internship having completed my first research project and a published scientific video. Above all, I am leaving this internship with an undeniable confidence in my career path – now when people ask what profession I am pursuing I won’t answer “I think I want to be a doctor” instead I will say “I will be a doctor.”

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