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Tips for Engaging Students in an Enriching Virtual Summer Research Experience (for Summer Research Mentor Award Winners)

This document was developed by Drs. Erika Barr, Ulli Klenke, and Natasha Lugo-Escobar of the OITE for the advanced NIH trainees who were selected to mentor participants in NIH summer subprograms, like Community College Summer Enrichment Program (CCSEP), the AMGEN Scholars at NIH program, or the High School Summer Training & Enrichment Program 2.0 (HiSTEP 2.0). Their excellent suggestions will, however, be useful to all summer mentors.

NOTE: For more general information and resources on being a summer mentor, please visit https://www.training.nih.gov/for_2021_virtual_summer_internship_mentors.

Thank you for your willingness to mentor a student during these “virtual” times.  The OITE appreciates that a virtual research experience is not ideal. However, although the students will not conduct experiments, we know that conducting experiments is only a portion of the scientific process. We hope students will be engaged in a virtual project related to their lab assignment.  The overall goal for this summer is for students to learn about the research process and gain an appreciation for biomedical research.  Moreover, having a mentor who is attentive and willing to teach and engage them during the summer will add value to their experience and encourage them to pursue those “hands-on” experiences in the (hopefully) near future.

The purpose of this document is to give you some guidance on how you might approach the virtual mentoring experience.  Except for the time commitment, these are suggestions.  The goal is to keep the students engaged using zoom meetings, simulations, videos, meetings with other lab members, etc.  Your creativity is welcomed! Here are some thoughts to get you started.

Planning Your Summer Intern's Time

Weekly Meetings/Communications: 

Mentors are required to meet with students for at least 2 hours per week (at a minimum of twice per week) via Zoom (or other meeting platforms).  For example, you could meet 4 days for 30 minutes each, or 2 days for one hour.  The meeting times/durations are at the discretion of the mentor.  However, meeting times should not conflict with the intern’s obligation to the summer program curriculum.  You will receive a detailed summer schedule for the subprogram in which your intern is participating.

Mentors should maintain communication with students between meetings by email or any method that works for them.

Project Working Hours Per Week: 

To keep students engaged, they should be given assignments or required to have deliverables for each meeting.  Students will be expected to devote 15-20 hours per week towards their projects.  

OITE Summer and Subprogram Curricula: 

Students will also be engaged in other program obligations (science skills workshops, professional development workshops, resilience discussion groups, subprogram-specific meetings/workshops, etc.).  You will receive detailed information from the program (or subprogram) director.

Lab and IC Activities: 

Students should be encouraged to attend research group/lab and IC virtual activities such as lab meetings, journal clubs, and seminars)

Overall Goals of the Research Experience for Students:


Gain an understanding of applying the scientific method to a hypothesis-driven research question.

Understand the following for a given project:

  • The purpose or research question
  • The background and importanceThe purpose or research question
  • The hypothesis and rationale
  • The experimental design (protocols/techniques) ;the importance of troubleshooting
  • The process of recording data and analyzing the results (are they statistically significant?)
  • The process of reaching conclusions
  • Future directions the work might take

An outline of ideas/suggestions for how to engage your intern in a “project” while ensuring that he/she develops some scientific skills follows.  NOTE: This weekly timeline is only a suggestion. The details will depend on the project scope and program or subprogram duration.

Suggested weekly timeline

Week 0: Introductions and Expectations

We encourage mentors and students to meet virtually prior to the start of the internship to get acquainted, discuss expectations and goals for the summer, and review the general basic background related to the project.

  1. Introduce yourself to the student (sharing a bit of your background)
  2. Get to know the students and their goals for the summer
  3. Introduce them virtually to other research group members (if they are available)
  4. Take students on a virtual tour of the lab/or office space (if you’re able to)
  5. Discuss your expectations: One-on-one meeting times (days/times); research group activities (meetings, journal clubs, seminars); other items, e.g., what can they expect from their virtual experience? what will projects look like?
  6. Discuss their expectations

Weeks 1 & 2: Literature/Background

  1. Provide articles related to the project for students to read.
  2. List specific discussion points for students to consider, and perhaps a short reading guide to ensure students pay attention to key parts of the paper(s).
  3. Meet with students to discuss the paper.
  4. Encourage students to find other articles related to the topic, again, provide guidance.
  5. Assign students to view seminars (live or recorded) related to the research topic.  To provide direction, you can give students key ideas to watch for in the talk(s) and be prepared to discuss with you at your next meeting.
  6. To assess students’ understanding of the background, have them give you a short presentation (1-2 slides) on the literature/background of the project. You can also ask that they write a summary (1-2 pages). At this point, students should have a good understanding of the literature related to their topic. Also, this this is a good way to introduce the importance of the purpose/hypothesis and rationale.

Weeks 1 & 2, Continued: Hypothesis/Rationale:

  1. Students should understand how a hypothesis is developed. You can talk to the student(s) about the importance of having a hypothesis and rationale.  The student should understand the hypothesis underlying his/her “project”.
  2. Assessment: Students can be given data already obtained on the “project” and asked to develop a hypothesis

(Weeks 3–5): Experimental Design/Techniques

Although students are not conducting experiments physically, they can still gain an understanding of the importance of experimental design and the techniques that would be used in their “projects”. To keep them engaged, you can try some of the following.

  1. Explain the experimental design of the project. You can use graphs, videos, and/or journal articles.  Some online programs include experimental simulations.
  2. Record short video clips of yourself doing the experiment or running the program (if the project is computer based)., You needn’t carry out the entire experiment, perhaps just the most significant parts.
  3. If you conduct wet lab research, make certain the student understands the importance of using protocols: Share and review the protocol(s) with your intern; guide the student through the calculations required for preparing solutions; ask the student to do the calculations required for the solutions that are used in the “project’s” protocols.
  4. Invite other lab members to talk to students about techniques used for the project. These might include microscopy, animal handling, molecular techniques, or preparation of standard curves for biochemical assays. Expect the students to prepare and ask questions to make these discussions rather than presentations. This could also be a time for students to get to know lab members, their professional paths to the NIH, and their roles in the research group.
  5. Demonstrate the importance of troubleshooting. You can present a case study where troubleshooting is needed and ask them how they would reach a specific situation.

Weeks 6 – 8: Collecting Data and Analyzing Results

OITE summer program students will have access to NIH databases and applications. Select a data set and ask the student to analyze a subset of the data.

  1. Explain how the data were collected.
  2. Demonstrate how the data are analyzed.
  3. Provide students with data sets to analyze independently.
  4. Discuss their analysis in one-on-one meetings.
  5. Discuss the use of statistics and selection of appropriate statistical tools. Provide an opportunity for the student to try applying a statistical approach to data.

Weeks 8 and 9: Conclusions

  1. Discuss how scientists reach conclusions and determine the best next direction for a project to take.
  2. Assign students the task of developing conclusions and determining future directions given a set of data.
  3. Presentation: The summer will end with Summer Presentation Week. Students will share their accomplishments and virtual learning experience, whether they have data or not. They can choose to present either a 3-minute talk or a poster.