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Tips on Finding a STEM Research Internship

By Julie Geng, VI Form


CatalystThis summer, I did a research internship with the Tang Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two months. I worked with a 4th-year graduate student on two projects in the field of medicinal chemistry. During the internship, I rented an apartment at Lucky Complex and lived by myself. Living on my own helped me develop many essential skills such as cooking, cleaning, and paying the monthly rent! Madison, WI has lovely weather in the summer, though we had two tornados. During my stay, I visited the state capitol and had afternoon tea at the famous Memorial Terrace.

The group had recently developed a reaction that is catalyzed by platinum, a very expensive metal. In order to improve the cost-effectiveness of this transformation, the group attempted to use copper, a much more economical metal, as the catalyst (Figure 1).


                          Figure 1: Copper-Catalyzed Tandem Annulation/Arylation Reaction Scheme

I ran two reactions with two different propargylic alcohols starting materials in order to determine the reaction scope. Due to my contribution (however minor), I received a fifth co-authorship on the paper that has recently been published at Chemical Communication, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The second project we did is the synthesis of analogues of a natural product, indolocarbazole (ICZ). These compounds can potentially treat prostate cancer and breast cancer. In order to synthesize the derivatives of ICZ, a four-step synthetic scheme was used. I did the four-step cycle for four different starting materials. Although the process can be repetitive, I always remind myself of the bigger picture and the ultimate goal of treating cancer patients. With the four compounds that I have made, my mentor will test their abilities to suppress the growth of cancer cells in some model organisms.

I obtained this research intern position after the “tribulation” of emailing fifty college professors. I would like to share my internship-seeking experience and offer a detailed, multi-step procedure.

Tips on Finding a Research Internship and More!

Answer this question first

Before starting your onerous search, you need to answer the following question:

“What am I interested in?”

During your search, you can easily get lost among the esoteric topics studied by the professors. Therefore, determining your interest first is both advisable and time-saving. If your interest is the general discipline (chemistry, physics, etc.), you should consider doing some preliminary research to narrow down your interest. For example, while I am interested in chemistry in general, my primary focus in chemistry is organic synthesis and catalysis. The latter is a much more specific interest, and narrowing your focus will guide you through your search.

 “Stalk” the Department of [Your interest] at a number of colleges

In the next step, you need to investigate the department pages of a variety of colleges. Do NOT only focus on the prestigious school ranked by U.S. News. If you are interested in biology, you should Google “best biology program” and find a ranked list on solely the biology program. While some schools do not have a high overall ranking, they specialize in particular fields and offer much better resources than others. After making a list of prospective colleges, you need to go to the faculty page of the department and look for professors whose research interests line up with your experience or interest. Now, make a list of professors and their contact information. Please jot down the email of the professor, not that of his/her administrator, as the professor ultimately decides whether he/she is able to offer the position and funding.

 Read some publications

After collecting the information, you can go to the “publications” section of the professors’ group pages and pick several recently publication articles, preferably review articles. Review articles attempt to summarize the current state of understanding on a topic and are typically more “readable”. You may forward the citations of the articles, alongside a nice email, to a librarian, who may be able to obtain the articles for you for free. The point of reading the articles is not only to get yourself familiar with the research topics, but also to obtain a sense of literature search, an essential skill in research.

Write a curriculum vitae and “cover email

Now that you have finished the search, you need to prepare your application. The first thing to do is to write a curriculum vitae. A curriculum vitae provides an overview of one’s experience and other qualification. You also need to compose a nicely worded (but short!) “cover email” in lieu of a cover letter and send it to a number of professors.

Example Curriculum Vitae:


Contact Address:


Phone number:

Education–High School Name:

Cumulative Unweighted GPA:

Selected coursework and grades (not necessary if you can provide your transcript):

Research Experience (if applicable):

(You may also provide a separate research summary)


Lab/Institution Name:


Brief Description:

Lab Skills (only list those that are related to your research interest):

Honors and Awards:


Please provide the contact information of at least two teachers/mentors who know you well and ask them for letters of reference.

Example “cover email”:

Dear Professor ______,

I am ______, a high school student from _________. This year, I am involved in a STEM research program at my school. My research primarily focuses on the synthesis of a chiral fungicide using palladium-catalyzed Buchwald-Hartwig amination. [Briefly state your previous experience]

I am seeking a research internship position this coming summer, and I am wondering if you would be interested in hosting me as a high school intern and consider my application. Attached are my CV and research summary.

Thank you so much for your consideration!


[Your Name]

 Be patient and optimistic!

Many professors are really busy and bad at replying instantaneously. Be patient, and re-send your email if they do not reply in two weeks! Also, be optimistic. There are professors who are interested in mentoring high school students. They do realize our potential and hope to help us pursue our science career. However, please also understand they have limitations in terms of funds and lab space.

Further Information

A book has helped me tremendously throughout my research: Success with Science, The Winner’s Guide to High School Research. It provides detailed and valuable advice on internship, presentation, paper writing, and competitions.

Julie Geng is a VI Former from Shanghai, China; she lives in Thayer House. She is obsessed with chemistry, and her favorite class at St. Mark’s is Death of God.

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