Project Onramp Summer Internship

Posted by: JT, Wily Scholar, Middlebury College


Finding a summer internship can be pretty tough nowadays. There seems to be an unending supply of unpaid internships, many of them online, and a shortage of ones that give students hands-on experience as well as enough money to offset the living costs of gaining that experience. The pandemic has limited the maximum occupancy of lab spaces, especially at large universities. Even though I was able to intern at Georgia Tech this spring while attending classes remotely, the pay wasn’t nearly enough to cover living expenses. I was lucky enough to be able to stay at a friend’s house for the spring, but my plans for the summer were very much up in the air. My applications kept getting rejected due to hundreds of other students, most of them juniors, competing for only one or two spots in a lab. 

One day, my Wily coach sent me an email about an internship opportunity with a company outside of Boston called Xilio Therapeutics. The outreach was facilitated through Project Onramp, a program that aimed to give underserved students access to paid internships in hopes that they would help them start a career in the life sciences field. I am a Neuroscience major looking into researching pharmacology, but this internship was more focused on the pharmacology of cancer therapeutics. I had some experience with the procedures that they outlined in the job offering, like growing cells and completing drug assays, so I decided to send the company my CV and see if I was a good fit. I heard back from my interviewer and prospective mentor, Manoussa, and we set up a meeting time. She was impressed by my previous experience and our personalities seemed to mesh well. I gave her the contact information of a professor who could give me a recommendation and she emailed back the next day saying that I was being offered the position! At this point, it seemed like my hope of getting an internship specific to Neuroscience was waning, so I accepted the offer and embarked into a new sector of pharmacology.

The internship was set at 8 weeks long, so I found a sublet through a local university’s Facebook housing group for 2 months in Waltham. I moved in and started working the very next day. That first day was very daunting, with terminology and lingo being thrown around that I had no context with which to understand. After being assigned a boat load of scientific readings, I was able to get a grasp on the technology that I would be working with. I signed a non-disclosure agreement, so I have to be vague with the terms that I use to describe my research. In basic terms, they wanted me to find the best cure for cancer. I was to plate human blood cells into dishes and give them various amounts of different drugs the company manufactured, and see which ones produced the largest immune response. What was special about these drugs was how they specifically targeted the site of tumors in the body, as opposed to most treatments that affect the whole body, creating potentially lethal side effects that limit the amount of drug that can be used. 

As I began to learn more about how this company came to be and how the people involved were motivated to create this technology, I was inspired by the personal connections that many of the people there had to the disease. One of my friends from school had started chemotherapy this year and was not handling it well. The fear of losing him kept me up most nights, but motivated me throughout the day to focus as hard as I could on the experiments I was producing. These experiments were not easy. They took an entire week to set up and if I made one tiny mistake or adjustment in how I added specific chemical agents, it could mess up the whole process. My mentor only gave me one run through of this process to take notes and then I was almost entirely on my own to try to reproduce the procedure. At first, I thought I was going to botch the whole experiment entirely, but my first round of results looked great! The next were so-so, but by the end of my internship I was able to reproduce the results of the first experiment I did but with six times the number of drugs and petri dishes. It’s hard to explain the amount of focus that was required to not mix up any of the different samples and manage the extremely time sensitive steps of this procedure, but the results that I ended up with made me very proud to be able to impact the course of this company’s drug development and prove my potential as a scientist. 

While working for the company, we gained approval from the FDA to start our first clinical trial on a therapeutic drug. This is increasingly rare for a company to achieve and it confirmed that the technology we developed was feasible for testing in real-life patients. This experience also gave me a lot of insight into how smaller startups are run from the ground up. I was able to chat with higher-ups in the company and gain great advice into how this niche world functioned, in comparison to the world of academia that I was used to. There is a lot of money in the pharmaceutical industry and untold amounts of competition, with some companies seeking profit and others fighting to save lives. My company hired dozens upon dozens of new scientists to their team since I had begun the internship and it really demonstrated how much potential there was to create change in a world with obstacles that seem insurmountable. Being able to create a team, let it grow, and have it produce tangible treatments that can save the lives of people like my friend, was an experience that I will never forget.

Even if I don’t continue to work in the field of ontology, the lessons I learned about the industry, as well as the scientific procedures that I worked with, still translate to both the vast world of biological science and my specific interest in treating neurological disorders. It also gave me insight into other options in my career path, such as working for a company straight out of college, or even starting my own company one day. The opportunities are endless and I truly recommend that students interested in the life science field check out Project Onramp and their summer internship program!

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