Every summer, there’s a special buzz of energy in our Vertex Learning Labs that goes beyond what you might find during the daily class visits we host throughout the school year. The summer break allows us the opportunity and time to welcome BPS students into our buildings as paid summer interns where they meet our teams, gain hands-on STEAM experience and explore the vast career opportunities that exist within our company. As both an educator and a scientist, this time of year is always my favorite.
But earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic set in, it was clear this summer would be different. Our Learning Labs are empty right now, and they will stay that way through the rest of the summer. As we shut down the Learning Lab in March, I had to wonder what impact the pandemic would have on our summer program — would this be the first summer in nine years that we wouldn’t have students on-site? With everything going on, a summer internship program for high school students is one of the easiest things for a company to push aside and say, “No, not this year.”
But that’s not how we do things at Vertex. We have a deep and long-standing commitment to provide meaningful STEAM opportunities to the students in our communities and develop the next generation of scientific leaders, and that doesn’t change even during a pandemic.
Following our company’s decision to move the majority of our employees to remote work, we knew we would need to get creative. There is no guidebook or precedent for how to take a program like ours virtual, and there was little time to test out different ideas. We started by breaking down the program into its core elements and identifying ways to deliver the same experience and opportunities in a virtual environment.
1. Exposure to STEAM and Developing Lab Skills
Typically, our high school interns spend their mornings in our Learning Lab conducting experiments and building their lab and STEAM skills. This was one of the most challenging elements to do virtually — how do you safely recreate the lab experience at home? Fortunately, science is everywhere and there are many experiments students can perform in their kitchens with basic pantry supplies. We worked quickly to develop a lab curriculum that only required supplies we could safely ship to a student’s home. Our interns will extract DNA, set up their own gel electrophoresis units, make slime, model the action of CRISPR gene editing and practice their micro-pipetting technique, all while at home. A few times each week, they are working with their lab partners over Zoom to perform experiments, analyze data and report the results. We’re also connecting students to our scientists — as well as other online lessons and resources — that together provide expert insights and allow students to explore our amazing science here at Vertex.
2. Professional Development
An important aspect of any internship — especially for high school students who have never worked in a corporate environment — are the relationships they form and the “soft” skills they gain throughout the experience. Working in a virtual environment doesn’t easily lend itself to many informal networking or mentorship opportunities, so we decided to carve out extra time in the schedule for professional development workshops and seminars. We also partnered with our employee resource networks to have employee volunteers serve as mentors. Students will meet with their mentor weekly throughout the summer to discuss their internship, career aspirations and how to build a career in the STEM field.
3. Meaningful Work
In our on-site program, interns spend their afternoons in different functions across the business, working with full-time Vertexians on real projects. This part of the internship was especially challenging to replicate virtually, so we created a custom-designed innovation challenge for them instead. Presented with realistic business challenges that we provide, interns will need to tap into their entrepreneurial skills to research, develop and propose creative solutions. The project is inspired by our annual employee innovation tournament called VOICE (Vertex Opportunities for Intrapraneurship and Corporate Evolution).
4. Community Exposure
A final component of our internship program is designed to expose students to the rich culture and community beyond our walls and help them understand how a company like Vertex fits into the broader innovation ecosystem. While this normally means Friday field trips to places like the Museum of Science and the Institute of Contemporary Art, we’ve instead curated a lineup of engaging virtual activities with these same cultural institutions, specifically for our interns. For example, the Institute of Contemporary Art will lead our interns through a workshop focused on the science and use of light in photography. Beyond this STEAM connection, the workshop will be even more relevant to many of their lived experiences as we focus on how to use light to photograph people of color in a flattering way. Other partners like the Huntington Theatre Company, HMS MEDScience and the Boston Debate League have created opportunities for our interns to grow their communication, presentation and wider STEAM skills. These opportunities both widen and deepen the experiences they will complete as part of our internship program.
Opportunities and Challenges
Having to shift to a virtual internship experience certainly comes with opportunities and challenges.
Examples of opportunities include the integration of more technology and computer science into daily work routines – an important skillset to have when joining any company full time. Another benefit is additional flexibility of not being tied to a specific location. This provided more freedom to allow our colleagues from across our global research sites and offices to network and collaborate with our interns.
That said, there have also been obstacles to address. For instance, we are committed to ensuring students have what they need at home to do their work effectively. Vertex laptops, a summer food stipend and daily check-ins are just a piece of how we are providing for our interns. Another challenge we face is fully conveying the unique culture we have at Vertex and ensuring high school students feel included and part of our Vertex family. We’ve done our best to deliver the full experience virtually, but we know we still have a lot to learn and improve. We know our interns will guide us and we are ready to listen.
Personally, I’m proud we’re continuing to do this work for students despite the unprecedented challenges we face, because I have the unique privilege of seeing firsthand how our efforts are truly making a difference in student lives. A perfect example is one of our Science Leader Scholars, Sayed Shah. Sayed first came to Vertex with his biology class for a Learning Lab visit back in 2016, then joined us over the summer as a high school intern. He applied for our annual scholarship program in 2017 and won the full-ride to UMass Amherst to pursue a STEAM degree. This spring, he graduated (a year early!) with a degree in Computer Science, and this fall he will join us as a full-time employee in our Global Information Systems department. To watch Sayed’s journey and see how his participation in our programs has positioned him to launch his career — a career with us, nonetheless — is simply profound.
At the end of the day, the value of our work is measured by the impact we have on lives — whether it be through the medicines we create or the opportunities we provide students — and that impact is real. It’s tangible. I feel lucky to be a part of it.