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(l to r) Shivangi Parmar ’17, Shunn Theingi ’18, Ryan Draft ’10 PhD, Eleni Apostolatos ’18, Jeshurun Gnanasegaram ’17

Unforgettable international escapades ranked second to hands-on lab experience for this year’s undergraduate interns with the Harvard-Bangalore Science Initiative. Students scaled sand dunes on camel back in Northern India, learned the craft of tea plantation workers in Munnar, Kerala, and gawked at the Taj Mahal. But the greatest adventure for these four young scientists was an immersive introduction to laboratory research that launched their careers in the life sciences.      

In an effort to bridge the thriving scientific communities of Cambridge, USA, and Bangalore, India, the Harvard-Bangalore Science Initiative (HBSI)—founded and directed by MCB Professor Venki Murthy—dispatches 3-10 Harvard undergrads annually to the “Bangalore Biocluster” for 10-12 weeks of cultural and procedural immersion as a full-time member of a world-class research laboratory.

Thanks to the hospitality of the National Center for Biological Sciences  (NCBS) and the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (InStem), this year’s untested batch of interns realized their own adaptability and skill throughout their first foray into the wide world of advanced scientific research.  While undergraduates with prior research experience are more than welcome to apply, “the small, close-knit lab groups are great places to get support and mentoring for first time researchers,” says Ryan Draft, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies, Neurobiology, and the HBSI summer internship program. A cumulative combination of “journal clubs, lab meetings, weekly seminars, special seminars, informal conversations at meals, etc., builds community and draws students into the excitement of scientific research.”

Prior to this summer, Jeshurun Gnanasegaram (Neurobiology, 2017) admits, “My experience with neurobiology was course heavy, but I did not have the slightest idea how neurobiologists applied this information in the lab.” He hoped an internship at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) would “help me gauge interest in whether or not I would want to pursue research as a career path.” After ten weeks of pilot experiments on head stabilization behavior in Oleander Hawk Moths, Gnanasegaram concluded he definitely wants to pursue research, although perhaps not behavioral neurobiology in insects; “I never realized how long it would take to get results from a behavioral study,” Gnanasegaram exclaims, with some frustration and relief. His expectations shifted as found himself overjoyed at data for data’s sake, even if his results only signaled the green light to conduct more experiments.

Shivangi Parmar ’17, a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator, had previously been to India and wanted to revisit the country, but also needed research experience; “I wanted to test many of the preconceptions I had about how engaging, career-worthy, or dynamic working in a lab could be. Truthfully, I questioned whether I would find lab work to be any of these things.” Hoping to work on primates eventually, she opted for a Drosophila lab at the NCBS, so she could work her way up from a smaller model organism. “I ultimately found my work to be much more interesting and unpredictable than I anticipated,” she declares, delighted to perform a fruit fly dissection under a microscope. She now hopes to apply to Drosophila labs at Harvard, “where I could apply the skillset I developed this summer.”

Like their peers, sophomores Eleni Apostolatos and Shunn Theingi were new to lab research and unsure how they’d fare putting classroom biology to use. Nurtured by a collaborative scientific environment and strengthened by an unprecedented level of independence, both emerged with the confidence and know-how to hold their own in the lab.

“One of the most surprising things about my experience was the sheer amount of knowledge that I gleaned,” says Theingi. “For the first time in my life, I felt like I had to be totally self-sufficient and proactive about troubleshooting any issues that I ran into. I experienced a steep learning curve both academically and [extra-curricularly].” Over time, however, “I learned how to adapt to living in a completely unfamiliar world” and, by the end of the summer, “I was familiar with the…notch signaling pathway, the apoptotic pathway, and how they are all interconnected, [which] I knew next to nothing about at the beginning of my internship.” She packed all her findings and background information into a fifteen-minute presentation before members of three different labs, which she proudly deems a complete success: “My rigorous preparation paid off,” she gleefully reports.

Theingi learned as much from her peers in Apurva Sarin’s lab at the NCBS as she did about notch proteins: “The highlight of my summer was becoming friends with Roja and Deepthi, my fellow interns in the Sarin lab,” Theingi reflects. “They were both working on dual Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at their respective Indian universities. They hailed from different parts of the country and had very unique experiences growing up and pursuing higher education in India…I found surprising parallels and stark contrasts as we took turns storytelling.”

As rewarding as the research itself, the intellectual, intercultural relationships forged through the HBSI render research both accessible and appealing and broaden interns’ overall perspective.  Parmar discovered a degree of diversity she hadn’t anticipated, struck by the cultural variation across Indian state borders. Gnanasegaram and Apostolatos were both surprised by how included and supported they felt as undergraduates in professional labs full of graduate students, postdocs, and research fellows. “My lab had 16 people, each of whom was working on a different project,” Gnanasegaram explains, “but despite that, they always took the time to sit down with me to discuss their projects and give me advice on my own, or answer questions I had with regards to the literature.”

An enticing introduction to the global scientific community for laboratory newbies, the HBSI summer program offers undergraduates of all levels and backgrounds an opportunity to expand their skills in new fields or “to see how different groups approach the same research questions (often quite differently!),” as Ryan Draft observes. Over the years, Draft has seen “many students build on their India experience by joining a Harvard lab working in the same area once they return to campus.”

While serving up a rare two-for-one combo—a prestigious research internship and summer abroad (far abroad)—the HBSI summer program proves that laboratory research in a collaborative, inclusive environment, galvanized by cutting-edge science and an equal exchange of stories and information, is irresistible, even addictive.