St. Olaf College | News

Gaining experience through NIH genetics internship

Hilary Fiskum ’15 (right) spent Interim working at the National Institutes of Health alongside genetic counselor Barbara Bowles Biesecker ’79 (left).

When Hilary Fiskum ’15 told a career coach in the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career that she wanted to learn more about genetic counseling, they connected her with Barbara Bowles Biesecker ’79.

The St. Olaf College alumna is one of the founding members of the Social and Behavioral Research Branch of the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute, and she has invited several students over the years to perform a rotation with her office.

She did the same for Fiskum, working with her to map out a hands-on learning experience at the National Institutes of Health.

During her Interim internship, Fiskum had the opportunity to shadow Biesecker during meetings and consults, assist with qualitative research coding, and observe the graduate student experience and the research processes at the Social and Behavioral Research Branch. The St. Olaf junior also undertook additional responsibilities that included proofreading manuscripts, formatting abstracts, and attending guest lectures.

“It was a really great way of diving into a field and being able to explore, working with it and really making it an interactive experience,” Fiskum says.

No one understands the importance of hands-on learning better than Biesecker. When she was a student at St. Olaf, a professor showed her a New York Times article on genetic counseling. She knew immediately that it was what she wanted to do, so she put together a unique Interim rotation at the University of Minnesota during her senior year and had her first exposure to people affected with and at risk for genetic conditions.

“So St. Olaf has a long history of making unique Interim opportunities for students that can lead to rewarding careers,” Biesecker says. “I am happy to continue this tradition.”

Fiskum received internship funding from the Piper Center that made it possible for her to spend the month at the National Institutes of Health’s Bethesda, Maryland, campus. As part of St. Olaf’s commitment to supporting students as they navigate potential career paths, the Piper Center has established several new cohort-based internship programs and significantly increased funding for unpaid or underpaid internship opportunities. Last year the center provided internship and scholarship support to 191 St. Olaf students, and that number continues to grow this year.

The Piper Center also provided nearly 3,000 career coaching appointments last year, helping students like Fiskum tap into alumni networks and think strategically about their postgraduate plans.

Even though her Interim experience was shorter than the typical NIH internship, Fiskum loved being surrounded by her field of interest — and is more convinced than ever that she wants to pursue a career in genetic counseling.

“I learned way more about the way this career works than I could have learned by Googling it, or taking prep classes for it,” she says. “I never would have imagined that this could open up my mind as much as it did. It’s been amazing.”