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No Labs? No Problem (for PRTD’s Interns)!

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This is a guest post by Andrew Davis, a chemist in the Preservation Research and Testing Division, who is active in PRTD’s outreach efforts. Andrew works to understand polymeric materials in the Library’s collection, such as paper, adhesives, and audiovisual materials, and he also researches the effects of light and the environment on collections objects.

The Preservation Research and Testing Division never shies away from hosting interns in our laboratories. We’ve had multiple interns working with us at any given time for many years now, ranging from Junior Fellows to HACU/HNIP students to high school students from the American Chemical Society’s SEED program.

As difficult and challenging and unusual as the past year-and-a-half has been, we have still kept up our desire to host scientific interns and researchers in our group, even if we can’t host them in person. As I’m writing this, we have 6 interns working with us remotely, logging in daily from Michigan to Texas to New Jersey to the UK. And since the start of the pandemic in 2020, we’ve hosted a total of 19 fully remote interns, volunteers, and fellows in our lab.

Which begs the question: what in the world does a scientist do without access to a lab?

The most significant aspect uniting our interns this past year has been data analytics and visualizations. That’s true to some extent when we work onsite full time. As scientific researchers, we are always interested in data: getting it, experimenting with it, analyzing it, and presenting it. While interns may not be able to collect new experimental data while working from their home computers, it still is entirely possible to find new ways to analyze or present PRTD’s existing data. We have some ideas that we never had time to try previously. But more excitingly, interns can offer a fresh set of eyes for old data, bolstered by their own experiences with specific new tools and methods that we may not be familiar with.

The interns currently working with us are already finding new and engaging ways of working with our technical data. Some efforts have focused on new visualization tools, and others have looked at ways to better codify and standardize our data to improve interoperability. This data has primarily come from PRTD’s extensive reference sample collection or from the ongoing ANC Project.

Another example of our remote intern projects has been looking at our environmental measurements of conditions within Library buildings or display encasements and starting to correlate those to historic environments from other libraries or wider meteorological data. This will allow us to better understand the interplay of building conditions and outside environment as they affect preservation needs. It could also help connect our little slice of localized environmental data to broader historical trends beyond our building.

As a whole, we’re hopeful that these efforts will slowly help make the vast arrays of PRTD’s data more accessible and discoverable. Some efforts are making older data more readily findable for PRTD’s own researchers (“What were the fold endurance measurements of these 10 test papers measured 25 years ago?”) and some are finding new ways to present highly specialized results in a more intuitive way for non-technical audiences (“Ok, sure, the spectral irradiance at 445 nm is 1.7 µW/cm2…but what does that mean for these new LED lights being installed in our space?”). By developing toolsets to sort, categorize, and engagingly display these data, we’re hopeful that these efforts will help make the vast array of PRTD’s data more accessible and approachable.

Screenshot of an online visualization tool using sliders to adjust false color representations of imaging data, with a section of the related code shown next to it.
Some remote interns have worked to apply interactive visual exploration tools to PRTD data sets. Image credit: PRTD.

There are obvious challenges to fully online internships. Sometimes a network connection goes down. Someone may have a power outage at home. New analytical files may be too large to attach to any available email software. And time zones differences are forever immutable. But we’ve learned and adapted like everyone. And really, is it so different from working in the analysis laboratory in DC? The lab can have its own delays too. A clogged solvent pump might lose you a day’s work, a sudden pressing request may arrive on the desk of a senior scientist who then commandeers your spectrometer, or simply a day of troubleshooting an instrument not quite working the way you expected.

One thing we do miss in our internships now is the spontaneity of daily interactions around the Library buildings. In the past, that could be as simple as talking about something neat in the Jefferson galleries on the way to or from a meeting or as complicated as troubleshooting laboratory bench work. When working behind screens at home, it’s harder to see when an intern is facing a challenging task. In prior years, you might see literal head-scratching over uncooperative equipment, in which case a quick chiming-in from an experienced lab hand might be helpful. But a virtual setting raises extra barriers for noticing when a quick pointer might be helpful.

One approach we’ve enjoyed to recapture some of those interactions is our weekly coffee/lunch/hangout meetings for the current interns and staff who might want to stop by for a quick hello or conversation. It’s a nice chance to just talk about anything consequential or not.

Screenshot of a video conference call showing the faces of multiple PRTD staff and remote interns.
Weekly informal coffee and lunch hangout with a few PRTD remote interns and staff. Image credit: PRTD.

We’ve learned a lot this past year about ways to make remote internships meaningful and engaging. It’s been as new to us as it has been to our interns. But even as the world keeps changing, we like the idea of maintaining some degree of remote internships in the future. We have been able to connect with more students and programs than ever before. These remote research programs let aspiring preservation scientists join us from greater distances and backgrounds than previously possible, and we’re excited to keep that experience going.

We are currently right in the middle of the 2021 Junior Fellows program (amongst other internships), so do watch for highlights from this summer’s work on either that program’s space or updates on this blog.

Check out the links below for internship opportunities.

Junior Fellows Summer Internship Program

Library of Congress Internships and Fellowships

Preservation Research and Testing Division Internships

The HACU National Internship Program

Library of Congress Internships Program



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