Summer interns build skills, relationships at life science biotech companies

Graduate students in life science fields across the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus can now get a taste of life after graduation by participating in UW’s Graduate School Industry Internship Program. This pilot program, now entering its second year, aims to enhance doctoral students’ competitiveness for a variety of careers beyond traditional academic or faculty roles.

The participants, who have all reached dissertator status, gain professional experience, grow their professional networks, and develop new skills. With wide-ranging internship options, students are able to explore their interests in a new context. The program grew from the internship requirement of participants in the Biotechnology Training Program (BTP). Students in BTP complete coursework and conduct an internship to provide training and experience in fields related to biotechnology. The Graduate School Industry Internship Program expands this concept to include any work in life science fields.

Charlotte Kanzler
Charlotte Kanzler

Charlotte Kanzler, a fifth-year graduate student in Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program and a trainee in the Biotechnology Training Program, is still unsure about whether her future lies in industry or academia. “I’m definitely considering going into industry,” she says, “but there are also some roles within academia — being a senior scientist, for example — that interest me. As a grad student, I have a sense of what it would look like to work in a lab at a university. This was an opportunity for me to learn what it would be like to work in industry and to see if it’s a good fit for me.”

Kanzler’s internship at the Madison location of Upside Foods was an opportunity to network, learn about workflow at a biotechnology startup company, and take risks. “An internship is almost like doing lab rotations at the beginning of graduate school,” says Kanzler. “It’s as much about seeing if it’s a good fit for you as it is about impressing the people you’re working with. So you can take risks, be bold, try new things. You can learn and make a contribution and then when it’s over you go back to working on your own thesis. It’s there to help inform what you do next.”

Brandon Polzin is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in the Department of Integrative Biology. Unlike Kanzler, Polzin, whose research focused on using bioinformatics to understand how birds’ brains control behavior, has long planned on a career in industry. But with so many possible directions to take his work, Polzin was unsure what “industry” would mean for him. His summer 2023 internship — which he participated in while completing his dissertation — was an opportunity to hone in on his priorities, from the work itself to the workplace environment.

Brandon Polzin
Brandon Polzin

“An internship is really an opportunity to try something different,” says Polzin, who interned at Stem Pharm in Madison. “I had originally thought I might do an internship at a larger company. But Stem Pharm is a startup, and that meant that I was able to take on more roles and responsibilities as an intern.” During his internship, Polzin worked closely with his supervisor to build tools for the company. He had valuable networking and relationship-building opportunities, and learned about the business-related aspects of working in industry.

Polzin has two key pieces of advice for future interns: find an industry mentor and keep an open mind. “No matter where you have an internship, you’ll learn something new,” says Polzin. “Every internship is a chance to learn about things that you do and don’t want out of a job. And having a good mentor can make all the difference. It doesn’t have to be the big boss, just someone who has been in industry for a few years. They’ll know so much about how the company works and just making that transition to industry in general.”

In addition, the work Polzin did through his internship informed his analysis for his thesis. “I got a fresh perspective on my graduate research through the work I did in my internship,” says Polzin. “I found something in my data that I didn’t know was there before.”

Applications are now open for students interested in an internship for summer 2024. Students interested in applying can learn more about the companies offering internship opportunities and the application process at Graduate School Industry Internship Program.

—Written by Renata Solan.