National Institute on Drug Abuse Summer Research Internship Program: Building a Diverse National Science Workforce

Each year, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Summer Research Internship Program (SRIP) undergraduate students arrive at substance use disorder (SUD) research labs across the United States to foster their careers and learn more about scientific research. They may not realize it, but these interns are helping to build our future national science workforce and contribute to diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The U.S. National Academies of Sciences reported that approximately 3.4 million tech jobs will be open in 2022, and the nation’s workforce must be prepared to fill these critical positions. Today’s population of academics entering the workforce needs scientific training to address critical issues affecting health. At the intersection of student, institutional and country needs, NIDA’s SRIP plays a critical role. The goal of this program is to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in biomedical science careers as part of a broader approach to supporting STEM education. As a model program, we find it holds great promise for developing and retaining talented students.

Founded in 1997, NIDA SRIP has funded hundreds of undergraduate students to work with researchers across the United States. In 2021, NIDA received more than 500 applications and matched 83 interns to research sites, compared to an average of 60 per year in 2013-2020. The growth of the program is a testament not only to meeting the needs of students, institutions and society, but also to the success of the model on which the program is based [1, 2]. The growth is also in line with a 2021 presidential decree, which called for an increase in paid internships as well as a whole-of-government priority on DEIA in those internships.

Substantial research demonstrates that summer research internships increase the retention of talented STEM students. Study showed undergraduate student engagement in research programs double student interest in pursuing graduate studies and furthering their research efforts [3]. Other researchers have found that summer research programs help motivate students to pursue scientific careers [4]. Students themselves rate summer research internships highly in their decisions to pursue careers in science, especially biomedical science [5, 6].

Research also signifies the importance of summer research internships in furthering DEIA’s goals. The deployment of institutional resources for the recruitment and retention of diverse researchers has been widely identified as best practices [7]. By deliberately promoting diversity, STEM programs can create more inclusive career environments [8]. Mentoring experiences, typical of summer internships, present key opportunities for retaining diverse students [9, 10] and engaging in research initiatives can specifically reduce disparities in STEM [11].

The SRIP serves both educational and social purposes. In terms of educational objectives, the student has the opportunity to conduct SUD research to gain real-world biomedical, behavioral, translational, clinical, or epidemiological experience. An internship may include laboratory experiments, data collection and analysis, experimental design, lectures, patient interviews, and manuscript preparation, among other opportunities. Interns typically give presentations on their research at the end of the program and may attend weekly seminars on research and career development. SRIP fulfills social goals with multidirectional impact: creating and increasing diversity in the STEM workforce, exposing underfunded students to research, and serving as a bridge to other programs and graduate schools. Since other research programs are available to undergraduate students, SRIP focuses on providing internships to students with limited exposure to previous research experiences. Achieving the objectives of this program comes with several challenges; the COVID-19 pandemic forced SRIP to skip 2020 and migrate to a virtual format in 2021, leading the program to offer both in-person and virtual experiences going forward. There are also occasional individual challenges, such as a family or personal crisis, handled on an individual basis.

The NIDA SRIP uses a hub and spoke model where the NIDA “hub” and the “spokes” of the research sites work together (Fig. 1). NIDA advertises the SRIP to potential interns through social media platforms, newsletters and email distribution lists, including outreach to Minority Serving Institutions (MSI). Intern selection is based on career goals, interest in SUD research, justification for site preference, and program priorities. Candidates with high GPAs or multiple prior research experiences may not be selected, as the program prioritizes students with limited research experience. Once confirmed, interns are paired with Principal Investigators (PIs) at various research sites across the country. NIDA approaches all NIDA-funded fellows with the opportunity to list their research site and mentor interns. All sites are included in the program guide, which trainees use for site choices. Trainees are matched based on their site justifications. All internships are paid and 2021 interns received $15 per hour. The cost per intern ranges from $10 to $11,000 funded by NIDA (2021 financial support per intern: summer salary support: $4,800; housing allowance (if applicable): $2,500; travel subsidy ( if applicable): $500; director’s supervisor fee: $1,000; establishment Indirect costs $3,000 to $4,500. There is no standard regional housing set aside; however, with rare exceptions Nearly, modified housing assistance may be provided for high-cost locations. Interns are paid at the federal minimum wage level at all research sites).

Fig. 1

Model of hub (NIDA) and spokes (research sites) of the NIDA summer research internship program.

The NIDA Hub offers seminars for interns to expose them to various research areas and resources. These include seminars on basic, clinical, and epidemiological SUD research, the NIH RePORT database, an overview of graduate studies, and other career development information. Interns also have the opportunity to virtually showcase their research in a SRIP Showcase, where interns interact with their peers and share their work on their respective projects.

Institutional spokes provide trainees with research opportunities, training in data collection, reporting, analysis, experimental design, and professional development opportunities (Fig. 1). By working on projects and collaborating with established professionals who mentor students and help them build networks and research expertise, SRIP helps students acculturate to the scientific profession. Nicholas Corriea, a former NIDA intern, explained, “I was exposed to many aspects of research…from engaging in dialogue with patients in follow-up interviews to evaluating the fidelity of counseling sessions and the provision of ongoing feedback…[which] will prove invaluable in my professional career and will work to improve my candidacy for medical programs in the future.

Jennifer C. Burleigh