A summer of opportunities: Penn State College of Medicine hosts first cohort of clinical research interns

Six people pose for a photo together.Six Penn State students participated in a clinical research internship at Penn State College of Medicine during summer 2023. From left to right are Andrew Simpson, Elijah Akinade, Ethan Welch, Kourtney Kelly, Neila Raveen and Eva Wilstermann-Luna.

Six Penn State students are better prepared for careers in clinical research thanks to a summer internship program at Penn State College of Medicine. For eleven weeks, the interns took active roles in existing research projects, immersed themselves in the conduct of research and learned more about careers in clinical research.

September 27, 2023Penn State College of Medicine News

Students from Penn State Greater Allegheny and Penn State University Park formed the first group of clinical research interns at the College of Medicine. The internship is part of the Penn State Undergraduate Clinical Research Training Program housed at Greater Allegheny and supported by the College of Medicine and Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI).

The program starts when students take HHD: 410 Clinical Research, a course offered through Penn State Greater Allegheny and taught by Andrea Stevens, PhD, assistant professor of biology. The course equips students from Greater Allegheny, University Park, Penn State New Kensington and Penn State Harrisburg with the skills and knowledge to pursue careers in or related to the conduct of clinical research.

“The program itself creates a career path and trajectory for students pursuing studies in biobehavioral health, psychology, and related science programs,” said Stevens, who directs the undergraduate clinical research program. “Not only do students learn about clinical research professions, but they also gain knowledge that will benefit them whether they pursue a career in clinical research or enter into a related field like medical training.”

While this is the College of Medicine’s first year hosting an internship cohort, Penn State has partnered with Allegheny Health Network to provide internship opportunities in prior years — a collaboration that continues to this day. Penn State also began a partnership with Clinical Research Strategies LLC for clinical research experience and internships.

The six interns in the College of Medicine’s first cohort contributed to the study teams they worked with and each intern was exposed to different types of clinical research by working in assigned primary and secondary locations including Penn State Cancer Institute, Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute, Penn State Neuroscience Institute and the Departments of Dermatology, Medicine, Ophthalmology, Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery and Pediatrics.

“My favorite part of the program was interacting with and learning from clinical research coordinators,” said Elijah Akinade, a 2023 biobehavioral health graduate who began his studies at Penn State Greater Allegheny before moving to University Park his senior year. He’s now completing a Master of Public Health Program at the College of Medicine as part of Penn State’s Integrated Undergraduate/Graduate Programs. “I want to use my skills in public health, research and medicine to improve community health in rural and underserved areas.”

Learning to connect with research participants

Throughout the eleven-week program, interns received more than 65 hours of direct training, which included a module on mock consenting. While in the College of Medicine and Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Clinical Simulation Center, the interns practiced obtaining informed consent. Six experienced clinical research professionals volunteered to serve as mock participants. The interns reviewed the consent with the mock participant while a seventh experienced clinical research professional observed through the Simulation Center’s observation space.

Following the activity, the mock participant and the observer provided feedback to the intern to improve their skills. The interns valued the chance to practice in a controlled environment and gain experience in consenting participants to join research studies. Their mentors appreciated the opportunity to provide one-on-one training and guidance to the interns. The mock consenting exercise was so successful, the College of Medicine Clinical Trials Office (CTO) has decided to incorporate this activity into the onboarding of all new clinical research professionals at the College of Medicine and Penn State Health.

“Learning how to interact with patients and research participants was a valuable part of the program,” said Andrew Simpson, graduate of Penn State University Park and now clinical research associate in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at the College of Medicine and Hershey Medical Center. “As an aspiring physician it was a great opportunity to work alongside some of the nation’s top physicians. I hope to utilize research to deliver evidence-based care to my future patients and further advance modern medicine for future generations.”

Building the clinical research workforce

As part of their program, each intern was required to create and present a poster related to their experience at a symposium during the final week. Program administrators, colleagues and even former interim dean Kevin Black, MD, listened to presentations and subsequent discussions.

A woman stands to the left of a poster that depicts details of her clinical research internship experience.

Penn State Greater Allegheny student Eva Wilstermann-Luna, proudly displays her poster during the 2023 Clinical Research Internship Poster Symposium.

Through the internship program, the CTO aimed to establish a sustainable pathway to attract Penn State students to clinical research positions as they graduate from their undergraduate programs. Three of the students who participated in the internship had completed their undergraduate studies prior to starting. Among the interns who had completed their undergraduate studies, two accepted positions at the College of Medicine and Penn State Health, while the other accepted a position at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, choosing to return home to western Pennsylvania.

“There are so many College of Medicine, Penn State Health, Penn State and industry supporters of this initiative to thank for the success of this program,” said Kevin Gardner Jr., MS, director of the Clinical Trials Office. “From the innovative development of the HHD: 410 Clinical Research course where students learned the foundations to be successful, to the departments, institutes and research teams that welcomed and mentored these bright scholars, I express my heartfelt gratitude. The future of the clinical research workforce is bright.”

This year’s internship was a success due to the support of the College of Medicine Dean’s Office, Penn State Clinical and Translation Science Institute, and Office of the Vice Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the College of Medicine. The internship opportunity was made possible by the study teams in the Penn State Cancer Institute, Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute, Penn State Neuroscience Institute and the Departments of Dermatology, Medicine, Ophthalmology, Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery and Pediatrics.

Read more about the internship and preceding course

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