So you are a freshman, and made it through your first semester of college! Congratulations. However, to make it in a career in science, you need to have the academic capability, work experience, and the professional network. This is critical regardless of whether your goal is to stay in academia, work for a non-profit, or do consulting work. The latter two areas are often ones that lag when it comes to advice from academic advisors.
There are two main discussion points here:
Internships, volunteer opportunities, and skills development
The importance of professional conferences
Internships, Volunteer Opportunities, and Skills Development:
As a freshman, you are usually not considered trained enough for the laboratory or field. However, there are are still a few opportunities out there. Though it is no longer updated, the following is a qualified list of paid internships in the sciences, and always a good link I gave advisees of mine: https://people.rit.edu/gtfsbi/Symp/summer.htm#skip Another great resource is one that aligns students with companies’ ESG interests, like Montclair State University’s Green Teams: https://www.montclair.edu/pseg-sustainability-institute/green-teams/
Additionally, there are usually two types of opportunities on campus: working in a professor’s laboratory and summer opportunities tailored to your campus. The former is almost always able to be completed as part of a work-study program, so you can be paid, or is available as research credit which will count toward your degree plan for graduation. The latter is important to explore, as programs are developed to make sure that on-campus students are afforded access to professors’ laboratories first, much like the University of Rhode Island has a whole Coastal Fellows program only available to internal students - that is paid for the summer!
If you cannot find a paid opportunity, are those which will cost you time or money. They CAN be valuable, but you need to put a bit of work into whether they would be worth it. One option is volunteering. Non-profit organizations are always looking for volunteers, and often places like zoos and aquariums look to their volunteer pool first when it comes to selecting internships for the animal husbandry department or summer (paid) educators. Volunteering can also be rife with problems, particularly since you need to make sure it is the right opportunity for you.
The other option is a field course somewhere. Good examples are those at the Isle of Shoals (https://www.shoalsmarinelaboratory.org/academics/undergraduate/courses) and Marine Biological Laboratory (https://www.mbl.edu/education/undergraduate-programs), which both offer financial assistance to make those opportunities a better fit. Consider that these also lead to expansion of your network, by getting outside your institution for additional experience that may lead to more opportunities for collaboration with those institutions later on. An additional consideration is developing adjacent skills, like language immersion, which would help you work in places that do not speak your primary language. For instance, Fulbright Colombia offers this one: https://fulbright.edu.co/macondo-2/
The Importance of Professional Conferences:
After you have a bit of experience in a laboratory and doing field work, it is important to present that work. In my field, two great conferences to consider for students are the Benthic Ecology Meeting (https://bem.disl.edu/) and the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting (www.sicb.org). Societies that are focused on specific taxa or habitat types, like The Crustacean Society (www.crustaceansociety.org) and New England Estuarine Research Society (http://neers.org/) area also fantastic places to meet colleagues and connect, often with travel support available for students. Presenting work at a conference during your time in undergrad is CRITICAL to developing your network.
Concluding, it is important to keep in mind that these opportunities and events are cyclical, and that many summer opportunities are often posted in the winter of the previous year (November or December), with application dates as early as February. Students that take an approach that “the early bird gets the worm” and who are the most prepared in looking to the following year will typically be those who are most competitive for those opportunities. Good luck!