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Science internships give street-credibility

1 February 2013

Science internships give street-credibility in a competitive job market

Spending your summer holidays testing mycotoxin levels and reorganising filter samples may not sound like most people’s idea of fun, but for five university science students the chance to work in a commercial analytical laboratory in Hamilton over summer is the career break they’ve been dreaming of.

Hill Laboratories, New Zealand's largest independent laboratory, is a strong advocate of the Government’s drive to support future scientists. In 2012, in partnership with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (formerly the Ministry of Science and Innovation), the laboratory offered five undergraduate science students paid summer internships.

Marketing manager Martin Brock said Hill Labs was overwhelmed by the response it received from students wanting the internships.

“We processed 65 applications from across the country, including Dunedin, Wellington and Christchurch. In the end though we could only give five internships, and based on the calibre of their applications we chose two students from Waikato University, two from Auckland University and one from AUT.”

The five interns are being paid to work at a laboratory to gain commercial experience and the opportunity to apply their university learning. They also have to undertake a project for Hill Laboratories which it has to report back to the Ministry as part of the programme.

Intern Jason Kirkham is studying for a Bachelor of Science at Waikato University. From Nelson, Jason was originally studying at Canterbury but moved to Hamilton last year after finding the impact of the earthquake was affecting his studies through reduced contact time with his tutors and classes being cancelled for building checks.

Jason said science has always fascinated him, particularly biology and chemistry.

“Learning science can be difficult. Everyone has their strong and weak points, but it’s the applicability that’s exciting and once you understand the science and start applying it – that’s when things get really interesting.”

Jason is working at Hill Labs’ Clyde Street laboratory in the Environmental division. His project is the optimisation of sample filtration for nutrient analysis. Essentially, under the guidance of his supervisor, he is helping the lab look at its process for testing water samples and finding ways to improve it, particularly the filtration aspect of the test, where the water is filtered before it is tested to ensure it doesn’t block the testing instruments, which are extremely sensitive to foreign bodies.

Hill Laboratories processes hundreds of thousands of water samples every year for large and small clients including farmers, councils and consultants.

“To improve water filtration, we’re looking at everything from the minute the sample is received to the time it is processed by the instrument. From the psychology behind the process to the physical process itself, everything is being evaluated to see what is working, what’s not and where it can be improved without jeopardizing quality,” said Jason.

He said the internship would strengthen his CV, and he hoped give him an edge in the marketplace by making him stand out from the crowd when it came time to get a full-time job.

“It’s a very competitive student environment and there are only so many jobs out there. This internship has helped me get real experience, make valuable contacts and have a great reference in my CV. I feel very lucky to have been given this opportunity.”

Cindy Wan from China has been studying for a Bachelor of Science at the AUT for the past three years.

With a food science career in mind, Cindy jumped at the chance to put theory into practice in Hill Laboratories’ Food and Bioanalytical division, based at Waikato Innovation Park. The division tests dairy, kiwifruit and honey samples for some of New Zealand’s largest food producers.

Cindy’s project is to create a mycotoxin screening method. Mycotoxin is a toxin from mould and fungus that can get into animal feed. It’s harmful to animals – and very hard to detect in the feed.

“We know they are there, so it’s not about finding the residues. The project needs to find an effective way to test for them that will also be affordable, fast and of the highest quality for Hill Lab’s clients,” said Cindy.

Hill Laboratories has some of New Zealand’s most sophisticated testing equipment, including a $650,000 Applied Bio systems LCMS (liquid chromatograph mass spectrometry) machine, imported from the USA. Only the third such machine in use in New Zealand, it’s used to analyse extremely minute traces of pesticides and contaminants in a wide range of foods.

Cindy said it was a privilege to be working in such a high-tech environment, because university equipment is often a lot older.

“I’m getting commercial experience, applying my knowledge and learning something new every day, I’m working with super modern machinery and meeting a lot of new people through this internship. The opportunity has been so beneficial.”

Founder and managing director of Hill Laboratories Dr Roger Hill said in the last 20 years the number of students studying pure science had declined as other career and training opportunities had emerged, resulting in a drive by the Government to revive the science and innovation sector.

“These internships are a win-win for everyone involved. They introduce students to the scientific community so that they can better understand where their aspirations lie, whether that is in the analytical or research environment, and it helps them direct their career focus.”

While he said there were no guarantees any of the students would secure full-time employment beyond the internships, he said it wasn’t completely out of the question and that Hill Labs had in the past continued to employ interns during holidays or for project-specific work.

“Interns are certainly one of our first choices for future employees because we’ve had the opportunity to see them in action, understand their strengths and get to know them first before we hire. Any employer knows how valuable that opportunity is and that sometimes you’ll find your future star performers.”


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