Before this summer, rising senior Alexis Campbell was a self-described homebody. She hadn’t spent any time outside of North Carolina.
An internship at pharmaceutical giant Merck in New Jersey changed all that.
Campbell learned about a stipend from Level the Playing Field — a development program for underrepresented college students founded by Carolina alumnus Nehemiah Stewart ’21 — to support students interning in their fields.
“Given this opportunity, where I was getting paid a good amount, it gave me that financial freedom to explore more,” says Campbell, who is studying biochemistry at Carolina. “A couple of Merck employees who went to school at Carolina connected me with this internship and worked with Level the Playing Field to match me.”
Leaving behind North Carolina, even for a summer, marked a big first for Campbell. “I’m the youngest of my family, and I was the first one to go up north,” she says. “It was scary at first, but I think it’s made me more independent.”
Campbell’s internship, a hybrid of remote work and onsite lab work, placed her in Merck’s biophysics lab. “It definitely wasn’t an area I was too aware of,” Campbell explains. “I feel like you do need a broad sense of everything in order to really understand the impact. Getting examples in different disciplines is really fun.”
That lab time has been critical to Campbell’s development, even if she’s working in an area outside of her major. She says she used to be afraid about making mistakes, but her mentor at Merck made sure she knew that was all part of the learning process.
“The first day I was in the lab alone, it was really nerve-wracking,” explains Campbell. “I was messing up a lot, and my mentor was like, ‘I figured you learn the best when you make mistakes.’”
As Campbell gained greater confidence in her abilities, her nerves fell by the wayside. “I’m not afraid to make mistakes because now I’m more independent and really confident when I go into the lab.”
Internships help students learn more about the types of work they might want to do after graduating, and Merck has certainly done that for Campbell. She also says her living situation helped her clarify her future.
Campbell’s roommates this summer are all graduate students. Campbell had been thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but she wasn’t entirely sure how she wanted to do it.
“They’ve helped me frame my idea about how I want to go about it,” she says. “I settled on the idea of doing a year off — that’s the consensus I got from everyone. I was thinking of doing post-bac, but after that, I will probably go the research Ph.D. route.”
Campbell is the first person in her family to go to a four-year college, which was a difficult path to navigate in and of itself. But things like professional development and post-college plans seemed even more daunting.
“No one [in my family] knew what steps to take,” she says. Her Merck internship has helped clarify things. “I can definitely say that this internship and the [Level the Playing Field] cohort really changed me in a very big way. I have a better sense of who I am and what I want to do in the future now.”