Biology major moves from the lab to the field with SECU Public Fellow Internship program

You might miss the entrance in a curve on a residential country road between Lenoir and Pitt counties. But, as you loop back around and make your way down the gravel path, a white dome shaped building — the only building with air conditioning — welcomes you to A Time for Science in Grifton.

Situated in a wooded area along Contentnea Creek, it’s a great location for a STEAM-focused (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) summer camp and an internship — especially when you’re used to an indoor lab or classroom.

A Time for Science, through a partnership with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, has two locations. Its main museum and learning center is on Dickinson Avenue in downtown Greenville. The Contentnea Creek site is on 380 acres of Bray Hollow Conservancy land in southern Pitt County and features a digital planetarium and public observatory, smaller exhibits displaying native wildlife and vegetation, kayaking opportunities, and a new obstacle course.

Martinez-Santoyo, a biology major said his internship with A Time for Science has been a huge change of pace from what he’s used to doing in his biology labs. (Photo by Kim Tilghman)

Martinez-Santoyo, a biology major said his internship with A Time for Science has been a huge change of pace from what he’s used to doing in his biology labs. (Photo by Kim Tilghman)

Ivan Martinez-Santoyo, a biology major from Wilson and a rising senior at East Carolina University, has been working as an intern at the center through ECU’s SECU Public Fellows Internship Program. Martinez-Santoyo says the internship has been a huge change of pace from what he’s used to but that he has truly benefitted from the experience.

“I’ve never been in a workplace that is 100% outside,” he said. “There aren’t too many opportunities like this around here so I’m glad I got to be a part of it.”

The SECU Public Fellows Internship Program at ECU offers paid summer internships in partnership with government, civic, educational and nonprofit entities across eastern North Carolina. These internships help ECU students gain leadership, problem-solving, communication and project management skills.

Martinez-Santoyo says he was encouraged by his lab director, Ariane Peralta, to apply for the position.

“I thought Ivan would be great in the position because of his genuine enthusiasm for science and relatability while sharing this enthusiasm with others,” Peralta said.

During his time at the camp, Martinez-Santoyo helped instruct young students in educational sessions and guided them in outdoor activities including kayaking, nature hikes and the obstacle course. A Time for Science hosts about 24 students each week with age groups ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. Weekly camp themes include outdoor adventure, ecology, robotics, engineering, exploring space science and more.

“I ensure the kids are learning, make sure they understand what’s going on, and guide them in the right direction if they get lost. I also make sure they are safe and keep up with hydration. We are out in the wilderness, and it’s really hot out here,” Martinez-Santoyo said.

As a former lifeguard, Martinez-Santoyo said the safety aspect of the job came naturally to him, but he says he originally found the thought of working with kids to be intimidating. He says he didn’t know how to talk to kids, could barely talk to his own younger cousins and didn’t think he was good at public speaking.

Martinez-Santoyo helps lead a hike for campers at A Time for Science.

Martinez-Santoyo helps lead a hike for campers at A Time for Science. (Contributed photo)

“I did have communication issues, but this has certainly helped me in the right direction since a huge part — especially in science — is being able to communicate with a team and work together with them,” he said. “I found that being here has helped me work within a team as well as taught me how to transfer information from one age group to another. Being able to carry that over into my normal work environment has been greatly beneficial.”

Martinez-Santoyo said his supervisors and the campers helped push through his initial communication insecurities. “Their encouragement, support and guidance really empowered me to overcome that and continue on. Seeing the kids learn as well — I found that very rewarding,” Martinez-Santoyo said.

Camp director Madeline Ewen agrees that Martinez-Santoyo greatly improved in verbal communication compared to when he first arrived at the camp.

“He’s grown in his confidence every day,” said Ewen.

“Ivan has been a positive influence on campers. He’s uplifting and connects with them. He’s definitely brought a fresh, new experience to camp. And, when he’s not here, they ask where he is.”

While Martinez-Santoyo was growing throughout the internship experience, he was also providing a valuable service to the science center. This was the first year the organization partnered with ECU as a site for the SECU Public Fellows Internship Program, and Ewen said the assistance of a reliable, knowledgeable and capable intern was vital to meeting the center’s summer staffing needs.

“Some of our challenges are funding and having enough manpower for activities,” said Ewen.

Because of his success in the role, Ewen says she’s talked to Martinez-Santoyo about a paid position with the center next summer.

“We love to make room for those who are interested and have proven reliability. I told Ivan if he wants a job next summer, we would love to have him,” she said.

As for future plans, the biology major says he’s always aspired to work for a pharmaceutical company. And, while the pharmaceutical industry is still the goal, this summer experience made him realize he has additional career goals.

“I want to continue learning in a work environment. I want to find a place to work that continues to teach me and will help grow my communication skills,” Martinez-Santoyo said.

Future plans for A Time for Science are also in motion. The main museum is planning to move to a new, larger location in downtown Greenville this fall. In Grifton, visitors can experience the planetarium, observatory, exhibits, kayaking and preserved nature during their Nature Saturday events, which are free and open to the public.

Ewen and Martinez-Santoyo hope more people take advantage of the free weekend events.

“I wish more people would come down here, especially on Saturdays. It’s a beautiful place,” Martinez-Santoyo said.