UMBC’s BUILD a Bridge to STEM Internship Offers Students a Transformative Research Experience

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By Sarah Hansen


For six weeks this summer, 18 students from Baltimore-area community colleges, Gallaudet University, and Morgan State University worked as full-time scientists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Their paid summer research experience was part of the BUILD a Bridge to STEM Internship, an arm of UMBC’s STEM BUILD initiative. The students worked in small teams to learn biomedical techniques and tackle real research questions with the guidance of faculty mentors. This format epitomizes BUILD Group Research, a key component of BUILD at UMBC. Like professional scientists, they shared their progress in lab meetings, discussed research papers in a journal club, and formally presented their work at a research symposium.


“I think the greatest thing about this experience was how we were treated as equals,” Zulekha Karachiwalla, a sophomore at Howard Community College (HCC), shared. “We really got a feel for what it would be like to have a career in research.”


“Learning to work independently, think about the research problems, and troubleshoot on our own was the hardest thing,” Rahaf Alhabashi, also a sophomore at HCC, added. “It’s been challenging in a way that’s made us better scientists.”


Karachiwalla, Alhabashi, and Michael Mercado, a senior at Gallaudet University, formed a research team that worked with Dr. Mercedes Burns, assistant professor of biological sciences at UMBC, to conduct research examining the genetic diversity of harvestmen, a type of arthropod commonly known as daddy longlegs.


Skills for the Future

Through their lab experience, the students learned skills like how to keep a lab notebook and conduct experiments safely, which will serve them throughout their careers.


“We’ve had to learn hands-on skills related to dissection and using different types of microscopes,” Mercado shared. He is confident those skills will be helpful as he pursues dental school. “I would encourage people who are still in college to get involved with as many internships as they can, even if it’s not directly related to their major, because it may change your major or help you gain skills that apply to your future,” Mercado said.


Karachiwalla also found the internship to be helpful in thinking through her future career goals, and the best route to get there. After considering several majors, Karachiwalla said, “This internship has definitely shown me that the career path I want is not just biology or computer engineering—it’s putting them together.”


Alhabashi came in with a plan to pursue graduate school in physical therapy, but after this internship, “I’ve gotten a lot more interested in doing research, too,”she said.


Researcher Diversity is Scientific Strength

The summer at UMBC also came with benefits beyond learning how to use scientific instruments, such as working on a diverse team to solve real challenges in the lab.