How to find your passion in science? Do a voluntary research internship!

Jasper Van Goubergen

Hi, I’m Jasper Van Goubergen and I’m a PhD student at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria. I graduated from UAntwerp with a Master in Biochemistry and Biotechnology. For my PhD project, I’m working to improve biomarker specificity for prostate cancer. More specifically, I study the regulation of the canonical and alternative splicing of the androgen receptor. 

During the summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to do a voluntary research internship at the Center for Oncological Research (CORE) at the University of Antwerp. This was an excellent opportunity for me to expand my horizons and to learn new skills in a state-of-the-art research lab. I’d like to share with you what I learnt and why I think it’s useful to do voluntary research internships.

In November 2018, I had to decide in which lab I would do the research project for my Master’s thesis. At first, I was a bit overwhelmed by the vast array of research topics to choose from, and I was uncertain which topic would suit me best. But, at our faculty’s annual scientific conference, where our researchers present various research projects ongoing in their labs, I discovered that oncology interested me the most. Hence, CORE seemed like the ideal lab for me, so I applied for a research internship. During the interview, I was asked whether I was planning to do a PhD after graduation. I didn’t really have a good answer to that question as I had never thought about it. But, to keep my options open, I tried to answer that question in a neutral manner. This question really got me thinking in the weeks that followed. I talked to friends, went to various information sessions about doing a PhD and read numerous articles on the topic. In the end, I was still not sure if a PhD was the best next step for me.

Why do a voluntary research internship?

Actually, a friend that had already done a voluntary research internship suggested to me that I should also do one. She had found her internship to be very useful and had learnt a lot from the experience. Thus, a voluntary research internship seemed to be an ideal opportunity to discover whether conducting scientific research would suit me. There were two main reasons why I chose to do a voluntary internship. Firstly, as from the age of 15, every summer I have worked for various companies (ranging from being a cashier in a supermarket to making deliveries as a mailman in a village in the middle of nowhere). The experience and skills I learnt from these student jobs proved to be invaluable to me, which brings me to my first reason.

For me, experiencing something is the best way of finding out whether I like it or not.

When doing a voluntary internship, you will discover both the positive and negative aspects associated with conducting scientific research. During my voluntary internship, I was fortunate to have a supervisor who showed me all the aspects of pursuing a PhD. So, I was able to gain a realistic impression of what it meant to be a PhD student. Besides having this experience, my second reason is that a voluntary internship makes your resume stand out. It shows that you have the motivation and enthusiasm to spend your spare time doing a voluntary internship to further develop yourself and learn new things. Most students will have a few months off over the summer. So use this time wisely to invest in yourself and to learn some new skills.

In the lab!

A voluntary research internship is a learning experience!

During my internship, my supervisor was PhD student Elien Augustus from the Targeted and Combination Therapy Team at CORE, which is headed by Prof. An Wouters. Elien’s research involves taking liquid biopsies from patients with non-small lung cancer or pancreatic cancer and screening those for biomarkers. She introduced me to the field of oncology and taught me techniques such as digital droplet and methyl-specific PCR, which prepared me for my Master thesis. Digital droplet PCR is used to quantify gene expression and works by compartmentalizing DNA into thousands of droplets, thus ensuring a higher limit of detection when compared to other methods such as quantitative PCR. Subsequently, methyl-specific PCR can be used to investigate possible changes in DNA methylation patterns that might drive altered gene expression. 

I learned a lot during my internship, including skills beyond the lab. For example, I hadn’t realized how limited my scientific network was, and how important it is to have one. Many scientific opportunities will arise through your network. 

Broadening your network means that you will encounter more opportunities in your scientific career. 

At the end of my voluntary internship, I had a much better idea of which options I potentially wanted to pursue after graduation. Before my internship, the options to choose from seemed endless to me. The options ranged from doing a new degree course, taking a gap year, to doing a PhD or working in the private sector. Thanks to this voluntary internship, it was clear to me that either doing a gap year or starting a new degree course were not the best options for me. Instead, I discovered a renewed drive for doing scientific research. The feeling of obtaining the results from a long experiment that included lots of preparatory work was exciting and thrilling. This helped me to decide that I wanted to either do a PhD or join the Research & Development (R&D) department of a pharmaceutical or biotech company. With the voluntary internship, I successfully reduced the amount of options from infinite to just two!

Learning new lab skills.

Closing thoughts

At the time of writing this article, I was in the middle of doing my Master’s thesis internship and, after much thought, had decided to a PhD after graduation. To find good PhD positions is not easy, as funding and opportunities are sparse. That’s why I believe that it is really beneficial to do voluntary internships. I would even recommend to start doing these voluntary internships during the Bachelor years as that gives you more time to build your scientific network and to acquire new lab skills. It will definitely give you a head start, like it did for me, in finding a position in a good research group or company when you graduate. As to where to conduct your voluntary internship, I would advise to talk to scientists from different labs and also with your fellow students. Don’t be afraid to ask around about which labs offer summer internships. In my case, I discovered my fascination for the molecular pathology of cancer when talking to my friends. Currently, I am doing my PhD abroad in Innsbruck, the capital of the Alps, in Austria. Indeed, in the middle of a pandemic I decided to move abroad, but that’s a story for another time.


Jasper Van Goubergen is a first-year PhD student at the Experimental Urology Department, which is affiliated with the Medical University Innsbruck (Austria). There, Jasper follows the Molecular and Cellular Biology of Diseases PhD program, organized by the Medical University. Before his move to Austria, he studied Biochemistry & Biotechnology at the University of Antwerp. His PhD project is a collaborative project with the University of Bonn (Germany), which focuses on biomarker improvement in castration resistant prostate cancer. In this collaborative project, he is working to gain insights into the regulation of canonical and alternative splicing of the androgen receptor. 

Article written by Jasper Van Goubergen. Student editor: Joris Van Meenen. Editor: Dr. Bronwen Martin