Interning with Dead Bodies in D.C.

Sara McGuire

There are majors at UNH that require certain experiences in order to receive a degree, which often include either an internship or a research project. Some majors offer assistance in finding such opportunities, whereas others point you in a general direction and give the proverbial “go” to get you started. As a Forensic Science and History major at our university, I was required to search out such an opportunity. So off I went, hunting down jobs and internships where I could find them that promised some semblance of lab work, from the so-called “Forensics Internships” that were little more than desk jobs, to the lab-intensive internships that had you in a chemistry or biology setting all day long. One thing I discovered: with certain New England crime labs suspending their internship programs, the search for an internship that not only fulfilled school requirements but would be near home, was impossible.

After searching, Googling, and trying to form connections all throughout the fall of 2008, I was starting to give up come winter break. I had considered four internships; I contacted the employers, played some email tag, and submitted the possibilities to the Forensics department for approval. Of course they were all turned down. Their reason: not enough lab work. I knew now that what I was looking for was not a forensics-specific internship, but one that had me stuck indoors all day “playing” with various chemicals. Maybe I could become a lab rat to some researching scientist. My hopes were minimal. But then I thought, hey I am a history major, too, and no matter how bizarre my combination of studies may be, it would be fun to do both. That was when I decided on a museum internship at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution.

Spring  2009 was a blur but most of all, I remember how anxious I was when I sat down at my computer at the end of the day to find out what responses I would get from the Smithsonian. Three months of email tag got me to the heart of the beast. I was passed along to SI MSC MCI, or the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center’s Museum Conservation Institute. I found out I would be the only intern in their Stable Isotope laboratory, and yes, it was a science/chemistry-heavy internship. And it was eleven weeks long. I was overjoyed.

I arrived in DC following a one-hour flight only a week after finals. I was jaded; sure I’d been to Boston, but in a city as big and wondrous as DC, I simply did not know what to do with myself. I was over five hundred miles from home, and staying at George Washington University amidst many Capitol Hill interns. My summer dragged on at first, but as my projects increased in number and as we received more and more samples for analysis, I only came to love DC more. It was a mecca for all things historic and academic; here I could find the country’s most powerful and intelligent people, and the best (and often coolest) scientists.

My internship involved analyzing the collagen in human bones (3000 year old Mongolian remains and remains from Civil War Union soldiers) for the presence of certain isotopes. I used Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (it is a fairly tedious albeit interesting discipline) to study which carbon and nitrogen isotopes were present in samples. From this, I could determine where the individual/soldier came from, and even what they ate. It was awesome!

Life in DC was more than I expected, too. I will never forget the words I heard at a restaurant one evening. A young man said, “Washington will not come to you, you have to go to her.” And this is true; DC is not a city where you can just hang about and learn of places to go, happening spots to visit, or clubs to frequent. It is a city where such places are carefully tucked away amidst the Capitol Building and Washington Monument, hidden in clean alleyways near the International Monetary Fund, and stashed underground in lovely Arlington. To truly experience the city, you need to explore it; doing so on your own proves tricky, but snag a friend who’s been there for a few months, and you’ll know.

I visited museums, saw the sights, and spent the Fourth of July out on the National Mall with my family. I studied isotopes, I did a lot of chemistry, and I was truly a member of the Smithsonian Community; at 600+ interns a summer at the Smithsonian, they are an integral part of the system. I really enjoyed myself, but it was over all too soon and I found myself wondering what had become of my time in DC. It felt as though I had just landed the day before, and yet my internship was over. I finally presented my studies to my peers and fellow scientists at the Museum Conservation Institute.

My advice to those who have yet to plan an internship, and even those who have completed theirs, is to start looking now, and have fun! Do another internship, it certainly would not harm anything and the experience is wonderful. My supervisors told me on several occasions that I should contact them and arrange something for next summer, too. Needless to say, my summer in DC was the best summer of my life. It was stressful at times, and lonely too, but it was amazing and an experience I would not trade for the world.