Research internship program attracts students nationwide

"Before anything can happen on the patient level, it has to happen on the lab side first."

woman holding up samples in a lab

Sanford Health’s commitment to education prompted it to create a special research internship program for students contemplating a career in that growing part of health care. This summer, 37 undergraduate and high school students from all over the country participated in Sanford Research internship programs in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, gaining hands-on experience alongside researchers who serve as mentors.

Sanford Research is a non-profit research organization that has sought to establish a core of scientists who are studying disease at a fundamental level with the expectation that these current efforts will pay off in the future by advancing disease therapy and prevention.

With a team of more than 200 researchers, Sanford Research is comprised of eight groups that bridge bench, translational and clinical research: cancer biology and immunotherapies, pediatrics and rare diseases, diabetes, cellular therapies and stem cell biology, enabling technology, environmental influences on health and disease, genetics and genomics, and population health.

“You’re not here to just work and be an extra set of hands, it’s really a learning experience for them. They’re given their own project and have that sense of ownership while actually being in the lab and having the opportunity to really do some hands-on science,” said Tamara Ledeboer, director of research education programs at Sanford Health.

Programs available

Sanford Health offers three research internship opportunities to undergraduate and high school students:

  • Sanford Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR): Students are fully immersed in biomedical science and laboratory research at the Sanford Center. The program is offered to freshman, sophomore and junior college students studying biological or chemical sciences that are interested in exploring careers in research and have intentions of going to graduate school.
  • Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE): Students majoring in public health, psychology, social work, counseling or related fields have the opportunity to work on social-behavioral research in American Indian community-based projects in Mission, Pine Ridge, Rapid City and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
  • Sanford PROMISE Scholars: This internship offers high school students with an interest in biomedical sciences the opportunity to gain an experience in laboratory research at Sanford Health. Students must be entering their senior year in the fall of the upcoming academic year.

All students participating in research programs are required to present their work following the conclusion of their internship at the Sanford Research Symposium.

Professional career development courses are also offered throughout the summer. Students are able to attend weekly seminars that help them network, prepare for research presentations, learn more about applying to graduate school and building a resume, and gain exposure to a variety of career options within research.

Student experiences

McKayla Poppens is one of the research internship students who has taken advantage of the various opportunities to get involved in cutting-edge work at Sanford Health. Poppens, now a junior studying biology at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, was part of the PROMISE program in high school and just recently finished her second summer in the SPUR program.

She has spent the past two summers in the Weimer lab investigating Batten disease — trying to understand the cause while also looking for a potential cure or treatment. Poppens said she’s enjoyed the independence Sanford Research has given her to drive her own projects and that being part of the program has given her insight on the possibility of performing research in addition to clinical duties as she studies to become a doctor.

“It gives you the idea of how treatments and drugs on the clinical side are tested in step one. Before anything can happen on the patient level, it has to happen on the lab side first,” she said.

Riley Leonard, a senior biology major at Saint John’s University in Minnesota, also completed his second year in the SPUR program. Leonard worked in the Faustino lab, and his research has been focused around the cause of atrial fibrillation in children.

Though he’s always had an interest in science, Leonard realized that becoming a medical doctor just didn’t fit his interests. He said his time in the SPUR program has helped him discover his passion for research.

“I know that’s my calling, and every time I’m there it doesn’t really feel like I’m at work,” he said. “My mentor has told me, ‘I really think you have a talent’ and that was really nice to have someone who saw a potential that maybe I didn’t see in myself.”

Where they came from

Because of the uniqueness of the research internship program and its growing reputation, the effort is drawing college students from places near and far, including Ivy League and other top universities:

  • Alabama: Alabama State University
  • Arkansas: University of Arkansas
  • Arizona: Arizona State University
  • California: Stanford University; Pitzer College; Humboldt State University
  • Colorado: Fort Lewis College
  • Connecticut: Fairfield University; Eastern Connecticut State University
  • Florida: University of Florida; New College of Florida
  • Illinois: Northwestern University; Northern Illinois University; Wheaton College; Illinois College; Illinois Wesleyan University
  • Indiana: University of Notre Dame; University of Evansville
  • Iowa: University of Iowa; Briar Cliff University; Buena Vista University; Dordt College; Luther College; Northwestern College
  • Kansas: Benedictine College; Kansas Wesleyan University; Haskell
  • Massachusetts: Harvard University
  • Minnesota: Concordia College; University of Minnesota; Augsburg University; Bethel University; Carleton College; Gustavus Adolphus College; Macalester College; Saint John’s University; St. Olaf College; University of Northwestern; Hamline University; St. Mary’s University; Minnesota State University-Mankato
  • Missouri: Central Methodist University
  • Mississippi: Mississippi State University
  • Nebraska: Creighton University; University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • New Hampshire: Dartmouth College
  • New Mexico: University of New Mexico
  • New York: Binghampton University; SUNY Fredonia; Cornell University; Onondaga Community College
  • North Carolina: North Carolina State University; High Point University
  • North Dakota: University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University
  • Ohio: Dayton University
  • Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma; Oklahoma State University
  • Pennsylvania: Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Clarion University; Gannon University; Lafayette College
  • Puerto Rico: University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez
  • South Dakota: South Dakota State University; University of South Dakota; Augustana University; University of Sioux Falls; Black Hills State University; Dakota State University; Dakota Wesleyan University; Mount Marty College; Northern State University; South Dakota School of Mines and Technology; Sinte Gleska University
  • Tennessee: Vanderbilt University; Maryville College
  • Vermont: Green Mountain College
  • Wisconsin: Beloit College

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