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Career-focused chemistry major discovers that internships can be the key

When Mary Surma first came to UIndy, she knew she wanted to major in chemistry. But she wasn’t sure of what type of career she wanted to pursue. Internships are a great way of get-ting a taste of a potential career, and Indianapolis offers lots of opportunities, including for chemistry and other science majors. So when the junior from North Judson, Indiana, started to look for internships last summer, she was hoping to gain experience working with instruments in a chemistry lab.

“We have a multitude of students who intern at local companies,” says chemistry professor Kathy Stickney, “including Lilly and Dow AgroSciences,” both industry giants. Some students will also complete national internships in other states through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates,” she adds.

Mary scored an internship last summer at the Indiana State Department of Health laboratories. She analyzed a wide variety of products, tested for lead in paint, dust, and soil, and did organic assessments of air and water. Mary worked with lead scientists in the general, environmental, organic, and food chemistry units and was able to gain experience in advanced laboratory techniques.

“I learned how the instruments worked,” Mary says, “and I was allowed to run many tests myself—with supervision and guidance, of course.”

Mary also tested meat for salmonella and examined vegetable samples for various pesticides, making sure the foods were safe for consumers.

“I spent 10 weeks working part-time and worked in a variety of settings in the lab,” Mary says. “Working at the Department of Health opened up opportunities for me I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Unpaid, but it pays off

“The internship was unpaid,” she says, “but I knew I needed the experience to get my foot in the door.”

That door is now wide open. Because of her experience, Mary scored a full-time internship this summer with Dow AgroSciences,
a division of Dow Chemical. More than 400 apply for the internship each year, and Mary was one of only 40 selected—for one of the highest-paid internships available to chemistry majors in the county. Much of Mary’s research will involve Omega-9 oils, developed by Dow Agrosciences as the “next generation” of cooking oils, designed to be a healthier alternative to trans-fats. Mary’s goal will be to evaluate the stability and characteristics of the oil itself and to draw conclusions on how long the oil can be fried or how long it can sit on a grocery’s shelf before spoiling. Mary says her professors’ connections made her internship opportunities possible.

“Experiences like this are the difference between getting interviews and being hired for jobs or not even getting called back,” says Mary. “UIndy definitely prepared me so well for this internship by providing hands-on learning in the classroom—and personable professors who are always willing to help us, every step of the way.”

‘The experience I gained from working at the Department of Health has opened up many opportunities for me I wouldn’t have had otherwise’