What is it like to spend the summer across the world, in a country where the only language you and your boss both understand is your mutual love for science? Harini Shah shares how she found neuroscience research internship in Paris, the support her mentor has given her, and how doing this research has made her consider swapping medical school for her PhD (or maybe even getting both)!
Name: Harini Shah
Job Title: Researcher at College de France
Location: Paris, France
College: University of Chicago
Year: 2nd year
What are you doing this summer?
I am working as a researcher in Fekrije Selimi’s lab at the College de France. Located in Paris, College de France is one of the most prestigious research institutions in France and contains some of the most recent neuroscience research happening throughout the world. My research focuses on the neurons in the cerebellum, which is involved in motor coordination and helps us further understand how motor learning takes place.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I think I’d like to be a primary care physician.
How did you get your internship?
My university played a large role in getting this internship. Actually, the director of the Neuroscience major, Peggy Mason, started this Metcalf Internship (UChicago’s subsidized internship program) just this year and I had to apply to the program through her. I am always keeping myself up to date on new things that are happening within the major as it is still fairly new and she’s very great about starting new programs the past few years. Once I found out about this opportunity, I knew that it was what I wanted to do this summer.
What do you wish you had known during your internship search?
Start early. In the case of this internship, it came around pretty late due to technical difficulties, and for the most part everyone I knew had already secured positions. If it weren’t for the Paris internship, I probably would’ve just stayed and worked at my lab in Chicago (Popko lab, Center for Peripheral Neuropathy). However, when this opportunity came around, it was around the end of April and I knew that there was nothing I had to lose. However, I would recommend that if you are applying to the program in the future, definitely have a backup already settled so that you don’t miss out on other opportunities should you not make it into the program.
I think my experience has been very variable when it comes to other people in the internship program. I’m not sure if this is because it’s the first time around or if every research experience is different, but I actually have a lot of freedom when it comes to doing my own experiments, and I directly respond to the principal investigator of the lab, Dr. Selimi when talking about my results. I know a few other people in the program struggled a little bit to find their ground initially because there were safety issues with them working with mice, etc. It really just depends on the PI you’re working for as well as your past experience.
The program doesn’t require any previous research experience from a particular specialty, but I definitely think that it’s important to keep an open mind that you’re walking into a brand new lab with new technology when you start your internship here.
What does a day in the life look like?
9 AM: Arrive at the lab, settle in, grab a coffee from the Nespresso (I have to hit the button a few times because the French love their espresso and it’s quite small dosages)
10AM: Get started on my first experiment of the day, whether it be a Western blot or immunohistochemistry stain
12/1PM: Head over to the cantine for subsidized lunch by the French government (3 euros for a 3 course meal for all researchers!)
2PM: Coffee break after lunch, very common thing to do after lunch
2:30 PM: Begin my second experiment of the day or continue my first experiment, typically my lab also has a lab meeting or I have a private meeting with my PI around this time depending on the day of the week
7PM: Wrapping up my experiment, finalizing results, putting them up in my online lab notebook, debrief with the rest of the lab to talk about our results and I typically make a plan (sometimes just in my head) on what time I need to be there the next day and what I’m doing.
8PM: leave work, take the 20 min RER train back to cite and R E LA X, maybe go to dinner with some friends around 8/9PM (the french have dinner pretty late) or go out for some drinks later on in the night
How has this job changed what you see yourself doing in the future?
I was actually speaking with Peggy about this earlier, but this internship has actually led me to rethink my desire to be a physician in the future. When coming into this program, I knew that one of the very few things that I would have in common with my fellow colleagues would be our mutual love for science. Having been someone who has never been to France ever before, it was a bit uncomfortable for me at first to be in a country where I absolutely had no idea how to speak the language (usually, my family and I vacation in Mexico, Spain, or India, places where I can speak the local language at least in a somewhat decent manner).
When I walked into the lab that day, however, I could feel that there was something comfortable about the situation. I felt at ease and I think it’s because I feel like myself in the research environment. I love scientific investigation and the thought of discovering something new puts me in a really solid place. It’s incredibly exciting to be a part of a movement that hasn’t been explored before. I’m starting to possibly considering getting a PhD instead of an MD after this experience in a foreign country.