STEM Summer Internships with Saint Peter’s TREX Program Remain Strong Despite Pandemic

Masiel Infante ’21

Coronavirus, COVID-19 may have stopped a lot from happening over the summer, but one thing it didn’t impact was the STEM Transformative Experiences (TREX) Program (National Foundation Award HSI Award #1832464) at Saint Peter’s University.

“Coronavirus didn’t slow us down- we found new and unique ways to carry out our mission regardless of the circumstances created by the pandemic,” explained Jeanette Wilmanski, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at Saint Peter’s University and TREX principal investigator.

The TREX program began at Saint Peter’s in 2018 after the University was awarded a five-year grant of $1.5 million by the National Science Foundation. The program provides opportunities for students in STEM majors, including biology, biochemistry, biotechnology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, to engage in a paid internship program that also counts for academic credit. Approximately 45 students participate in the program each year. Tatiana Gaona serves as the TREX internship coordinator and the University has three co-principal investigators – John Ruppert, Yosra Badiei and Jennifer Ayala.

Students involved in the TREX program often spend their internships working in labs, for pharmaceutical companies, designing hands on experiments and more. While TREX always involves unique experiences for Saint Peter’s students, the pandemic actually presented new opportunities.

One particular example was the work that eight students did for the Jersey City Department of Health and Human Services. The City of Jersey City wanted to update its Healthier Jersey City website with the latest information on health services that were available to the Jersey City community in the midst of the pandemic. The Saint Peter’s TREX interns were able to make it happen as different students were tasked with researching various resources. For example, Angel Kaufman ’21explored helplines and hotlines that were available to residents while Masiel Infante ’21 researched hospitals, labs and other health service providers in the city.

The TREX interns investigated services that were still being offered, how services had changed and what protocols the organizations were following as a result of the pandemic. The team worked from June until August, at which time they came together to compile all of their research and ultimately update the site.

Infante, a double major in biology and biochemistry, is currently working on her Honors Program thesis and found that her internship experience greatly influenced her plans for the thesis. “The focus for my thesis was science education and how to create more scientific engagement in the community. I experienced the importance of this firsthand through my internship work. I also came to realize the importance of identifying resources for the community and promoting it locally,” she explained.

Kaufman also felt that his experience with this summer internship was extremely impactful. “I participated in other internships in the past, but this summer I felt like I had the most freedom and my work made a difference,” he said.

Students not only had the opportunity to engage in new projects, but they also reinvented the way previous internships were carried out. One particular example was the interns who were placed with Students 2 Science.

Students 2 Science is a New Jersey based non-profit program with the mission to inspire, motivate and educate elementary, middle and high school students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. This mission is accomplished by providing authentic, state-of-the-art laboratory experiences complete with modern instrumentation and professional scientists.Through the TREX program, Saint Peter’s students work directly with the K-12 students to teach them and spark their interest in the STEM fields.

Due to COVID-19, the interns could not work one-on-one in the labs with the children as they did in the past, but this did not stop the program from moving forward. Saint Peter’s interns developed videos that enabled the students to continue to learn virtually.

The diversity of other summer internship opportunities varied greatly with students employed by the Bayonne Medical Center, Hoboken University Medical Center, Liberty Science Center and  the flavor and scents company Symrise, among others. Three Saint Peter’s students even worked on a Jersey City Tree Mapping Census Program with Sustainable JC, a collaborative network of green community groups and individuals within Jersey City.

TREX internships are also being carried out this fall and the success of the summer program will certainly influence future opportunities. Read more about the TREX Program