Interning at UF Scripps: The challenges and joys of discovery

Q & A with Katrin Karbstein, Ph.D., professor, integrative structural and computational biology

Interview conducted by Jaclyn Judge, 2022 Kenan communications intern, on June 29, 2022

Katrin Karbstein, Ph.D., stands in her lab with undergraduate summer intern Jaylin Knight. Photo by Jaclyn Judge.
Katrin Karbstein, Ph.D., in her lab with SURF intern Jaylin Knight. Photo by Jaclyn Judge.

What do you find to be unique about UF Scripps’ summer internship programs?

“I’ve overseen our Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF) program for approximately 10 years. Something that’s unique to this program is the incredible amount of independent research students conduct. On the second day the interns arrive, they go to their designated labs, where they’ll work on their independent research projects with the help of, typically, a graduate student. The interns truly get the experience of a second-year graduate student, which is challenging for them, but it also allows for tremendous growth during the summer. It’s also remarkable how the interns tend to be extremely successful in their futures. Either despite, or mainly because of the challenge, the interns really do rise to the occasion. Sometimes, having never been in a lab before, they contribute to wonderful science.”

How competitive is it to receive an internship opportunity at UF Scripps?

“Yes, it’s very competitive. We get several hundred applications and have around 10 to 15 funded slots for interns. I always mention how it’s most likely harder to receive a summer internship than to get into grad school.”

Could you describe what it is you’re studying and why?

“Yes, my lab is interested in trying to better understand how cells assemble ribosomes, and how cells conduct quality control to ensure that the product they’ve created is correctly assembled. And even further, when things go wrong, and there does happen to be misassembled ribosomes, how that leads to diseases found in the cells.”

“To make everything a bit clearer, ribosomes are the machines in all cells that produce proteins. Bacteria have ribosomes, as well as human cells. They look fairly similar. Ribosomes are huge machines and are composed of both a few RNAs and many proteins – about 80 pieces. I always say, it’s kind of like a Lego project. For example, if I give you 80 pieces of Legos you would probably build something quite different than what I build with my 80 Legos, and someone else. The main objective is to have all the Lego pieces incorporated into the build, just as the ribosomes should be. However, things can go wrong, like losing a Lego piece under the carpet, similar to when a ribosome is misassembled. In order to assemble the ribosomes correctly, there are quality control mechanisms that cells use to make sure this assembly is running smoothly. We use mainly yeast as a model organism in our labs, because of its convenience and inexpensiveness.”

What was your personal journey and who/what opportunities led you to having this career?

“When I was in ninth grade in Germany, I had my first chemistry teacher who I thought was excellent. Chemistry quickly became something I was very much interested in throughout high school, and I picked it as my elective for three years. That preparation was equivalent to what you would receive from a bachelor’s degree here in the United States. That education is what really set me on a journey. I started studying chemistry once I entered the university system in Germany, but eventually switched into a biochemistry track at a new university where I met my amazing molecular biology professor who is an internationally renowned scientist who works on translation. He was the teacher who sparked my interest in RNA and ribosomes. Once I received my university degree in Germany, I had to conduct my own research, which I did once having moved to the United States. If you look at the big picture, two of my most profound teachers had the biggest influence on myself and my career.”

Why do you dedicate time to science education?

“Science education is something I’m very passionate about. I am not only a scientist and an educator, but I am a parent, and parenting is in many ways educating. It’s also one of the most rewarding things, to be educating the youth in the science community, especially when you’re working with an undergraduate intern in your lab. They grow so much. It’s special to see as a mentor.”

What do you hope interns will take away from their experiences at UF Scripps?

“There are two perspectives I look at it from, the first being what I hope the interns will take away for themselves. Ideally, I’d like them to confirm that they love science and what they’re studying. But they may not, and that’s completely OK, because even just having more knowledge about their choice pertaining to what they want to make out of their careers is valuable. I’d also want them to know that they’re involved in the scientific community and most definitely not an outsider. The other way I see it, is from our institution’s perspective, which would like the interns to know that it’s exciting to be included in the research that takes place here at UF Scripps.”