Externs to Interns: How Swarthmore gets you in the door

During the end of my winter break, I found myself sitting in a bustling research lab with five guys. Although I wish I was referring to a juicy burger (dad jokes, yeah!), instead I was participating in an equally invigorating shadow program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) right outside of Washington, D.C. The other students in the program shared my sentiment about the experience: it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So why in the world were we aiding in the research at one of the largest government institutions in the world? And what gave us the audacity to believe we were even remotely qualified to be here?

Swarthmore offers an incredible opportunity to its students in the form of “externships.” These shadowing experiences with alumni and other members of the community in the professional realm not only give students a glimpse into the workplace lifestyle of different career paths, but also offer mentorship, internships, jobs, networking, and even a little boost to your resume. After a brief application and resume check, the Career Services department matches students based on preliminary vetting and then a lottery system, with priority generally given to younger students without prior externships. In my experience this past winter at NIH, every researcher and host we engaged with was shocked that such a program existed, and backed up my assertion that this is truly unique to Swarthmore. Although most college students from any school would be reluctant to give up their precious winter break, it is a rare opportunity that all students should seek out during their time at Swarthmore.

Swarthmore students actively engaged in their roles as externs and pupils.

Even before arriving at NIH for the first day, I knew we were in good hands because of the informative email correspondence and additional resources provided to let us hit the ground running. Arriving at NIH proved my point, as our hosts were extremely hospitable for the entirety of our stay. They not only ensured that we were set up to succeed while at NIH, but also generously gave plenty of useful professional and personal advice for our budding careers. That level of conversation and help is truly only accessible through a program like this externship, making it a unique opportunity.

Our home for the week, Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications
Our host and Swarthmore alumnus, Dr. George Thoma

Each day, we Swatties would arrive on NIH’s campus, ready to learn more about the ongoing research at such a prestigious government institution, and eager to network. Using our skills and boldness (that I wrote about in my previous post “The Common App’s Common Map“), we were able to take full advantage of the experience. Our primary role was to sit in on talks given by each researcher in our specific department—Biomedical Communications—about their past and present work. These projects ranged from using smartphones to automatically detect and diagnose malaria in blood smears to detecting bias in scientific papers. All of the projects used cutting-edge technology and are the spearhead of research in the biomedical application of artificial intelligence. Through these talks, we were then able to use our Swarthmore education and individual skill sets to comprehend the material and engage in productive conversations to further the ongoing work. The material was seriously interesting and complex, providing us with a clear insight into the type of work in our future.

A smartphone, using NIH’s technology, detects and analyzes malaria parasites in blood smear slides.

Apart from these talks, we also networked with coworkers, socialized with each other, and fully immersed ourselves into the life and campus of NIH. We took tours of libraries, seeing a first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Theory of Evolution, saw graphic designers creating revolutionary biomedical images, and even experienced the power and sheer size of NIH’s PubMed/MedLine servers. Given that I am from D.C. and we had other students from as far away as Cuba and the Philippines, we also spent a good bit of time discussing life in the nation’s capital. These students participated in “homestays,” living with other Swarthmore alumni in the area, which allowed them to limit personal expenses and also enjoy the freedom and wonder of life in the city.

The most surprising and beneficial part of the whole experience was the opportunity for internships. As a D.C. native, my high school friends and I always dreamt of internships at NIH, notorious for their competition and benefit. Upon arriving at NIH though, it seemed as though every researcher we met was eager to have interns from Swarthmore. This speaks not only to the benefit of externships in providing the potential for these kinds of career opportunities, but also the value of a Swarthmore education because of  the researchers’ complimentary nature of Swarthmore and our previous interns.

Internships at NIH are notoriously competitive and highly regarded.


Swarthmore makes it particularly easy to apply and work even at these high-level institutions, because it gets you in the door, and provides opportunities for funding to allow these alumni to host Swarthmore interns full-time at reasonable compensation rates. Although I have already accepted another position for the summer as an electrical engineering intern, I know that the other participants are applying for NIH internships and some have already accepted positions there. I acquired my internship for the summer through a Swarthmore alumnus as well, demonstrating the strength of the alumni network that Swarthmore provides to its students and community.

The capstone to the experience was a write-up of our experience, which captures all of the knowledge we gained, and recommendations both for hosts and Career Services. Here’s a quote from my own write-up to give you a sense of my genuine appreciation for this program:

“Through the program, I not only learned about machine learning and CNN deep learning, but also soft skills, including self-confidence in my scientific abilities/understanding, professionalism in a research setting, the importance of effective collaboration, etc. To this end, I believe that this experience is truly invaluable and would highly recommend it to other Swatties in the future.”

This externship program serves as another example of the additional benefits of a Swarthmore education, other than the traditional classroom academics. Your investment of time, money, and effort into this school will most certainly pay huge dividends, if you choose to assert yourself and take full advantage. However, the onus falls on you to decide: is Swarthmore the right place for you?

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