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Student spotlight: Internships provide public health undergrad with experience in the lab and the field

Like all College of Public Health undergraduate students, Lindy Thornton needed to complete two internships before graduating. Through her internships, Thornton gained experience through a combination of hands-on data analysis and fieldwork. These, she says, can go a long way with her applications as well as her career down the road. Now a senior, she’s applying to graduate schools to study health informatics.

Though many undergraduate public health students postpone learning programming until graduate school, Lindy Thornton decided to learn two.

She first learned R, a programming language designed for statistical computing, as an intern for Siminoff Research Group, led by College of Public Health Dean and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Public Health Laura A. Siminoff. In the internship, Thornton focused on analyzing data for a study examining the relationships between lymphoma patients and their caregivers. This meant importing and coding raw data from around 175 observations, mostly from interviews, with hundreds of variables.

“It was kind of an adventure,” said Thornton, who is pursuing her bachelor of science in public health. “I’d watch hours and hours of R videos in and out of the office, and I’d ride the train listening to training.”

However, her most impactful learning happened hands-on in the lab. When her first attempt at building the database turned out to be clunky and counterintuitive—which she attributes to being new to programming—she started again from scratch.

“I didn’t like my approach to the data, and I was able to step back and learn more,” said Thornton. “It was awesome that I had the power to say, ‘This is not working’ and then fix it.”

Thornton is now starting on a second programming language in her final semester. Learning one, she said, made it easier to understand another.

Meanwhile, Thornton’s work over the past two years as in intern for the Social and Behavioral Health Intervention Lab has put her in a variety of positions both in and outside a lab setting. In particular, she worked on a smoking cessation study involving mothers in Philadelphia enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) federal nutrition supplement program.

Thornton spoke with participants in virtually every step of the study, including for eligibility interviews, nutrition counseling and post-study follow-ups. While she did some of it over the phone, Thornton also visited WIC clinics and people’s homes around the city.

“That’s been an eye-opening experience for me, being able to go out into the community and see participants first hand, and see the Philadelphia community in general,” said Thornton. “I feel like I really got a holistic experience.”

Learn more about research centers and labs in the College of Public Health.

Posted:  March 14, 2018