Thursday, June 29, 2017

Eurofins Internship Pushes Student Scientists to Excel

Lauren Heflin stood in the laboratory, her gloved hands measuring fluids into tiny beakers.

She is an A student majoring in biological sciences at the University of New Orleans. She is one of three students chosen for a competitive year-long internship at Eurofins, a global bioanalytical company with operations at the UNO Research and Technology Park, adjacent to campus. That’s where, on this day, she was getting training on how to test food for certain allergens.

But if you had asked Heflin six years ago where she would see herself today, never would she have described this scene—or, for that matter, the one that awaits her when she finishes her workday and heads home to her husband and four children.

“I never wanted to go to college,” she said. “I never pictured myself having a real job.”

Heflin graduated from Riverdale High School in Jefferson, La. in 2003 and knew from the start that she wanted to be a hair dresser. But things didn’t go as planned. She accumulated debt as she paid for her cosmetology training. She started bartending to pay off the debt. Nine years later, at 27, Heflin was still working in a bar when a coworker who happened to be enrolled at UNO insisted there was more for Heflin’s life, marched into the bar office and started filling out an application to UNO for her friend.

“I got in,” Heflin said. “And I was so excited.”

Before classes started, Heflin and her husband learned she was pregnant with her first child. Even with a due date at the end of finals week in the fall of 2012, Heflin stayed the course. She earned all Bs that first semester, took off the next semester to be with her newborn, then re-enrolled at UNO in the fall of 2013.

That’s when she took her first biology course. Her instructor was Lura Williamson. Heflin fell in love with the subject matter and was rewarded with her first A.

“I said, ‘You know what? I need to be in biology,’” Heflin remembered. Jerry Howard, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, encouraged Heflin to pursue the new major.

Now 32, Heflin has carried a 4.0 almost every semester since—and she has done so while her family has expanded. She had her second child in 2015 in addition to being stepmother to two more children, ages nine and 12. She took one semester off after having each baby and has held a number of part-time jobs to cover expenses. But when Heflin was awarded a scholarship to work in Department of Biological Sciences Chair Wendy Schluchter’s lab, Heflin got her first taste of what it was like to work in one’s field of study.

Impressed by Heflin’s smarts and dedication, Schluchter in the spring encouraged Heflin to apply for the Eurofins internship. Heflin got the interview and she says Schluchter’s best advice for her student was to be herself.

Heflin was chosen for the paid internship along with two senior chemistry majors with equally impressive stories. Jonathan Long, a senior from Greenville, S.C., transferred to UNO after experiences at three other universities. And Elliot Alexander, a resident assistant who grew up in Jefferson Parish, discovered his love of chemistry while at Riverdale High School thanks to a teacher who quickly identified Alexander’s proficiency and encouraged him to enroll in a honors chemistry course.

Established in 2015, the Eurofins internship was formed shortly after the company moved its offices to the UNO Research and Technology Park. The scholarships are funded by Eurofins Scientific; Michael Russell, the former CEO of Eurofins; and the UNO College of Sciences.

In addition to giving students in biology and chemistry paid employment—full-time in the summer and part-time during the school year—the internship comes with a $1,500 tuition scholarship. A fourth UNO student, biology major Melva Holland, was so impressive to the Eurofins leaders when they interviewed her this year that they offered her the $1,500 scholarship even though her personal obligations prohibited her from being able to participate in the internship.

Students are assigned to work in one of the two sides of the Eurofins operation in New Orleans: either Eurofins Central Analytical Laboratories, which provides analysis and food safety consulting for its clients; or Eurofins GeneScan, which provides molecular biological analyses in seeds, grain, food and feed, specifically in biotech crops. GeneScan’s work helps detect food allergens and DNA tests such as those for fish authenticity. Heflin is currently working on the GeneScan side while Alexander and Long are working in the Central Analytical Laboratories.

John Reuther, president and lab director at Eurofins Central Analytical Laboratories, and Frank Spiegelhalter, president of Eurofins GeneScan, say they look for students who demonstrate a passion for science, a strong base of knowledge and a demonstrated work ethic. The laboratories get about 300 samples that need testing every day, so the day is a busy one.

“I’m looking for bright, creative, fast learners,” said Reuther, himself a UNO alumnus who graduated with a chemistry degree in 1976. He said Eurofins has good luck with its UNO student interns.

Cammi Larossee was in the middle of her internship with Eurofins last school year when Reuther decided to hire her full-time upon her graduation in the fall of 2016. She came to UNO with a plan to eventually go to medical school, but said she became so excited about introductory chemistry classes she took under instructors Skip Gallagher and Sean Hickey that she decided to change majors.

After years of supporting her college career by working 30 to 40 hours a week, including bartending at a ballclub, babysitting and landscaping, Larossee was excited to find employment doing the science she loves while also clearly seeing the societal benefits of that work.

“People really don’t know what companies are putting on their food,” Larossee said. “So, I thought this was a fantastic market to help people to make sure they’re getting what they should be getting.”

Since being hired full-time, Larossee has already been promoted to analyst. This summer, she is helping train Elliot Alexander during his own internship. She watches and advises him as he performs required exercises to learn how to properly measure, calibrate and test the samples in compliance with safety standards. This isn’t the first time they’ve met, though. Larossee was Alexander’s teaching assistant in his organic chemistry course at UNO.

Larossee said the key to success in an internship like this is to be cautious and conscientious, following best practices with testing procedures, staying on top of your work and keeping a positive attitude.

Long arrives at Eurofins every morning, calibrates the scales in the lab, records temperatures when needed and makes the rounds to find out who he can help—what samples need prepping, what dishes need washing. Prior to working at Eurofins, he had a job at the University of New Orleans Earl K. Long Library. “I’ve really enjoyed being able to apply what I’ve learned,” said Long, who expects to graduate in December. “Everybody here has made me feel really welcome and helped me along the way.”

Alexander said he was thrilled to learn he’d gotten the Eurofins internship—not only because of the professional experience it provides but also because he feels it is a tremendous testimony to his younger siblings about what is possible for those who seek education as a means of advancement. When he gets his degree, he says, he will be the first in his family to get a diploma from a four-year college.

“I always knew that in college, I had to do something that would be a big thing that show my younger family members that you do go to college for something,” Alexander said. “If you try and you push yourself, you’re going to be a part of something good.”

Wendy Schluchter, the biological sciences chair who encouraged Heflin to apply for the Eurofins internship, said she’s constantly impressed by how much UNO students bring to their studies. And she loves to help pair students with opportunities like this that may broaden their experiences and their ideas of what they see for themselves professionally.

“I have such an appreciation for our students,” Schluchter said. “It’s one of the reasons why I took this job over some of the others. I really felt like I could make a difference here. This was not somewhere where people come to have everything handed to them.”

For Heflin’s part, she said she fell in love with biology without knowing exactly where it would take her. She said she’s not exactly sure where her career path will lead, but she is lapping up everything this Eurofins internship has to offer with the hope that it will lead to full-time employment after she graduates in May.

“I am very, very excited and satisfied here,” she said. Even the parts of the job that some might find tedious, she said, she loves. And she is especially pleased to be able to demonstrate to her children and stepchildren what hard work and dedication can do. She credits UNO’s supportive professors and resources with helping her make more of her life than she once envisioned. She has discovered that she is a scientist.

“I feel like I tell people all the time, including my classmates who I study with, ‘You know, just pay attention, meet people, talk to them,’” she said. “You can learn something from everybody. You just need to do it because you don’t want to regret not doing it. You want to know that you gave yourself a chance.”

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University of New Orleans College of Sciences
Eurofins Central Analytical Laboratory
Eurofins GeneScan
College of Sciences Undergraduate Research Program