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Internship Spotlight – Matthew Fertakos

Name: Matthew Fertakos

Graduation Year: 2019

Major: Biology Minor: Sexuality and Queer Studies

On-campus involvement: TCNJ Musical Theatre, All College Theatre, Tri-Beta Biological Honors Society, Independent Research in Dr. Wendy Clement’s Lab

Internship: Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University (Boston, MA) from May 21-July 27

Describe your role.

I was a research intern under Dr. Beth Spriggs studying the bio-geographical distribution and evolution of three species of Chestnut trees in the Eastern United States.

What was an average day like?

Each day I would get to the Weld Hill Research Building around 10AM where I would stay until 5PM. The majority of what I was working on each day involved coding in R to create distribution models for the three species of chestnut I was working with. Every Wednesday, all the interns and our program advisor would meet over lunch to discuss chapters from a book titled How to Do Ecology, or meet with a professional from some field in biology. These ranged from professors at Harvard to environmental policy workers, granting us a full view of where work in biological research could take us. Each day I would also meet with my research advisor to discuss how my independent research program was going. Some days I spent in the living collections of the Arboretum, and other days out in the field collecting plant
material for evolutionary DNA analysis.

What was the best memory you had interning?

My best memory was when I got to do field work with my research advisor in Connecticut. Our objective was to collect samples of American Chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) to use for DNA sequencing. Because this tree is very rare due to a blight that killed off the once population of millions in the United States, when you find one, it is quite exciting. I personally felt this excitement when we were leaving a field site and over the road I was certain I saw the distinct outline of American Chestnut leaves! I screamed at my advisor to pull over, climbed a 10 foot retaining wall, and it was indeed what we were looking for. The sense of accomplishment I felt in that moment has reverberated with me, and helped me verify that I could do this kind of research for the rest of my life.

What have you learned from this experience?

Overall, this internship helped me to become a better scientist. I now feel more confident in my ability to ask novel and specific scientific questions, and design a way to answer them. I also feel more confident as a researcher, having worked one-on-one with several esteemed scientists in the field of plant science, and having completed and presented by own independent research project. Also, this internship taught me how to use R, a program used to analyze data, which will benefit me immensely with research in this field going forward. Lastly, I learned the importance of networking in the world of scientific research. I met many researchers and staff at Harvard who I am still in contact with as I continue my path into the world of plant science.

What is one skill you feel as if you’ve improved upon while at your internship?

One skill I have improved on while at my internship is presenting scientific information to an audience. Throughout the course of the internship I had to give two presentations. One was for a small group of about 20 scientists who work at the Arnold Arboretum, and the second was for about 80 people at the monthly Arboretum Staff meeting. I learned how to communicate both to fellow scientists, and the general public who may have more trouble understanding some of the intricacies of what I was working on.

Do you have any advice for anyone who is applying for an internship?

Don’t be afraid to apply for internships that seem out of reach. You never know what the program is looking for and you may be surprised which internships accept you! It doesn’t hurt to apply!

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