New DRI Internship Program Focuses on Mentorship for Inclusion in STEM

New DRI Internship Program Focuses on Mentorship for Inclusion in STEM

New DRI Internship Program Focuses on Mentorship for Inclusion in STEM

Oct 26, 2021

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Career Development
Above: DRI Research Internship Immersion Program students Mary Andres (left) and John Cooper (right) work with faculty mentor Dr. Riccardo Panella in his laboratory on DRI’s Reno campus.
Credit: DRI.
Research immersion internships provide career-building opportunities for students from Nevada’s two-year colleges
From wildflower blooms to microplastics pollution, fourteen students from Nevada’s two-year colleges are spending this fall building career skills in exciting new directions.  The students are conducting hands-on research alongside DRI scientists in Reno and Las Vegas through DRI’s new Research Immersion Internship Program.

Although professional internship opportunities are fairly common in the sciences, many positions are aimed at students who are enrolled in four-year science degree programs. DRI’s new internship program takes a more inclusive approach, creating an opportunity specifically aimed at students from two-year colleges and welcoming those majoring in fields from outside of traditional scientific disciplines.

“Science and innovation thrive when people of diverse skillsets work together, because real-world problems are often very interdisciplinary,” said Internship Program Director Meghan Collins, M.S. “In addition to traditional scientific fields, drawing in students with interests in communications, business, public health, computing, and many other areas can bring new perspectives and new solutions to the table.”

Riccardo Panella and John Cooper in lab

DRI faculty mentor Riccardo Panella, Ph.D., (left) and student intern John Cooper (right) review calculations as part of an ongoing research project that tests a new therapeutic approach to treating metabolic disorders. Panella is an assistant research professor of cancer and genetics with the Center for Genomic Medicine at DRI; Cooper is a student at Truckee Meadows Community College. 

Credit: DRI.
DRI’s internship program began in September and runs for 16 weeks. Students have been placed in teams of two to four people, and are working under the direction of DRI faculty mentors from the Institute’s Reno and Las Vegas campuses on a variety of project themes.

One team of interns is working with Erick Bandala, Ph.D., assistant research professor of environmental science from DRI’s Las Vegas campus, to investigate water security in Native American communities of the Southwestern U.S. His team consists of three students from Nevada State College – two environmental studies majors and one math major.

“Many people in Native American communities lack access to running water in their homes and experience problems with water quality as well,” Bandala said. “We are exploring data that was collected by Tribes and water treatment facilities to learn about the scale of the problem and how it can be improved. I love the challenge and hope that my team will come out with helpful information. Water security is a very complicated issue, but the students that I am working with are very enthusiastic, and I am happy to be interacting with them.”

Other project themes for the program’s inaugural semester include documentation and analysis of wildflower superblooms (above-average bursts of blooming wildflowers) in the Western U.S., an investigation into the effects of wildfire on water repellency of soils, a study on how microplastic particles can be transported through the air, and a study investigating the effects of obesity on health challenges in mice.

Student intern Mary Andres
Riccardo Panella and Mary Andres

Above, left: Student intern Mary Andres from Truckee Meadows Community College prepares reagents needed to analyze lipid profiles and hepatic enzymes in a study being conducted by DRI’s Center for Genomic Medicine. The results of these experiments will pave the way for a new generation of RNA-based therapies to treat metabolic disorders and prevent cancer progression.

Credit: DRI.

Above, right: DRI faculty mentor Riccardo Panella, Ph.D., (left) of the Center for Genomic Medicine and Truckee Meadows Community College student Mary Andres (right) use a bright light to view a sample in Panella’s laboratory in Reno. 

Credit: DRI.
This year’s cohort includes students from Nevada State College, Truckee Meadows Community College, Great Basin College, and the University of Nevada, Reno. Because many of the students are early in their college journeys, or come from fields outside of the sciences, the internship program provides stepping-stones to help them build the fundamental skills they need to succeed, including a month-long period of training prior to implementing their projects.

At the end of the semester, the student teams will deliver their project results and receive feedback from their faculty mentors. The end goal is to help foster the next generation of diverse scientists through mentorship, inclusion, and skill building.

“There are a lot of independent internships available to science majors, but not many  programs that prepare students to be successful working in the sciences in the real world – especially for students who are coming from two-year college programs or from outside of scientific disciplines,” Collins said. “This program aligns with some of DRI’s larger goals of improving diversity and inclusion at DRI and in the sciences as a whole, while also providing important stepping-stones for students to learn to navigate the culture of science.”

Student Intern John Cooper

Student Intern John Cooper from Truckee Meadows Community College prepares reagents in Riccardo Panella’s laboratory at DRI in Reno, as part of DRI’s new Research Internship Immersion Program.

Credit: DRI.

More Information:

For more information on DRI’s Research Immersion Internship Program, please visit:

DRI faculty mentors for the Research Immersion Internship Program include Erick Bandala, Riccardo Panella, Eden Furtak-Cole, Markus Berli, Christine Albano, and Meghan Collins.


About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

The DRI Foundation has just awarded the next round of seed grants to six teams of researchers through the Innovation Research Program (IRP). The IRP provides the start-up funding DRI scientists need to test new ideas and produce initial data, which will help them build the scientific case for future research projects.

The 2020 Innovation Research Project winners were chosen through a competitive selection process and reviewed by a committee comprised of previous IRP recipients and DRI’s Vice President for Research. The selected projects demonstrate creative, innovative research or technological development that advances DRI’s mission.

Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Advancing the science behind canine odor detection evidence in criminal trials
Mary Cablk, Yeongkwon Son, Andrey Khlystov

Cadaver dogs are often called on to detect the odors of human remains at a crime scene, and the evidence they find—the odor left behind from a body on a killer’s clothing, for example—is treated as hard scientific fact in criminal trials. However, there are currently no physical or chemical forensic methods to verify this kind of evidence. In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Mary Cablk and her team are employing a scientific approach to compare the detection of residual odors by dogs and laboratory instrumentation. This research will bolster the scientific foundation for canine evidence used in homicide cases and position DRI to secure future funding for projects investigating a wider span of canine evidence, such as contraband.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Supporting climate adaptation for specialty crop farmers
Kristin VanderMolen 

Climate change impacts like flooding and drought threaten the production of specialty crops like fruits, nuts, and vegetables in California, a state that grows more than half of these crops nationwide. DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, PhD, and partners at the Climate Science Alliance at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are investigating how farmers are adapting to these challenges in order to identify how climate research can best support them. This research lays the groundwork for field studies to test and verify the effectiveness of farmers’ adaptation strategies and the development of climate information products to support farmers into the future. Additionally, this project builds relationships between DRI and critical partners, like the Climate Science Alliance and University of California Cooperative Extension.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

Enhancing soil moisture data to improve hydrologic modeling
Ming Liu

Soil moisture is a critical variable when it comes to understanding processes like evapotranspiration, the transfer of water from land surfaces and plants into the atmosphere. Most hydrologic models rely on soil moisture data from satellite remote sensing, but this data lacks ground truthing, especially in remote arid places. In collaboration with Myriota, an Internet of Things (IoT) nanosatellite startup, DRI’s Ming Liu, PhD, is developing sensor stations by integrating Myriota’s nanosatellite transceiver with custom-made universal dataloggers. The sensor stations will be deployed across Nevada to collect soil moisture readings from the field. This project aims to improve the data used in hydrologic models and build the foundation for broader sensor deployment for environmental research in arid lands.

Researchers sample snow

Researchers sample snow for a previous research project. Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

Tracing the history of atmospheric river events to improve water resource management in the Western U.S.
Joe McConnell, Nathan Chellman, Christine Albano

Atmospheric rivers carry significant amounts of water vapor from the tropics to the Western United States, providing 30-40% of the total precipitation during a typical winter season. However, these rivers in the sky can also result in extreme weather like flooding and wind storms, which pose risks to infrastructure and human safety. Despite the significant impacts of atmospheric rivers, little is known about how their frequency and intensity has changed over the past several centuries. Using chemical analysis in DRI’s state-of-the-art Ice Core Laboratory, Joe McConnell, PhD, and his team are working to identify isotopic signatures that differentiate snow produced by atmospheric rivers from that produced by other storms. If successful, researchers will be able to leverage this work in future projects to develop a history of atmospheric rivers over the last several hundred years. Such a record will be valuable for informing water resource management and hazard mitigation, especially as the climate continues to warm and change.

A cannabis growing facility

A cannabis growing facility, part of a previous DRI air quality study. Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

Evaluating health risks from cannabis smoking and vaping
David Campbell

The legalization of cannabis products for both medical and recreational use in many states, including Nevada, has resulted in widespread commercial production of non-tobacco smoking and vaping products. However, this growth hasn’t been accompanied by research into the health effects from use of those products—in fact, there has been virtually no analysis of the many chemical compounds that are inhaled by users when smoking or vaping cannabis, due in part to federal research restrictions. Dr. David Campbell is developing a portable sampling system to collect the smoke or vapor for laboratory analysis, and it will be tested with cigarettes made from legal hemp, which is identical to marijuana except for the lower THC content. This research will bolster what we know about the health risks associated with cannabis use and develop intellectual property DRI researchers can leverage in future projects.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast,

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast, where Gillies and colleagues have previously conducted research on dust and wind erosion.

Modeling and Analysis of Fluid Flow Interactions with Porous/Permeable 3-Dimensional Forms
Jack Gillies, Eden Furtak-Cole

Dust emissions, particularly from arid regions, directly impact air quality, human health, agricultural production, and the planet’s climate. Windy conditions drive the formation of dust through erosion, and while vegetation and structures like fencing are known to mitigate wind erosion and dust emissions, researchers have been unable to quantify their actual impact in large scale models. Dr. Jack Gillies and his team are working to incorporate the erosion mitigation impact of vegetation and engineered control structures into wind erosion models. These models will provide a cost-effective, efficient way to develop dust control strategies and improve air quality. This work will also position DRI as a leader in the ability to evaluate dust emissions and lay the foundation for future projects, particularly as problems like drought and desertification become more pronounced under a warming climate.