Each spring, the Harvard chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) academic honor society elects members of the graduating class to join the prestigious organization, along with those inducted as part of the annual “Junior 24” in the spring and “Senior 48” in the fall.
This spring’s newly-elected PBK members include 9 people from concentrations administered through the MCB department: Rachelle Ambroise (CPB ‘21), Connie Cai (CPB ‘21), Mohamed El-Abtah (Neuro ‘21), Stephen Freeman (CPB ‘21), Carter Nakamoto (CPB ‘21), Lydia Pan (CPB ‘21), Kathleen Ran (Neuro ‘21), Simon Schabl (MCB ‘21), and Taylor Shirtliff-Hinds (Neuro ‘21).
These electees were chosen based on letters of recommendation, the breadth of their coursework, and their consistently excellent grades. Less than 10% of any graduating class are invited to join PBK. Those that do join PBK become part of the oldest academic honor society in the United States and gain access to a network of alumni and events.
“Being elected to PBK is still quite surreal,” says Rachelle Ambroise. “Coming from an academic background that required me to take five semesters of math courses just to catch up to the level of many of my peers, I never quite thought I would be in this position. I am just so thankful to God for the opportunity to have such a distinction and more importantly for the opportunity to attend an institution that never failed to offer new opportunities to challenge myself.”
For many students, being elected to PBK felt like a culmination of their academic efforts so far. “When I started college, one of my most important goals was to broaden my academic interests and learn more about other fascinating disciplines that I had never formally studied,” Mohamed El-Abtah says. “I am humbled and grateful to be recognized for this willingness to broaden my intellectual and academic interests. My family has always emphasized the importance of education, and being elected to PBK is a testament to all of their dedication and support towards me.”
For Simon Schnabl, the decision to join PBK was complicated by concerns about awards and honor societies encouraging cutthroat pursuit of grades. “At first glance, PBK reminded me of a flawed meritocratic model that I have typically attempted to dissociate myself from, given that the society only recognizes a small segment of Harvard’s amazing student body and assigns value based on–often arbitrary–grading,” Schnabl says. “I have gotten the impression that prestigious recognitions incentivize students to deprioritize their mental health and pursue courses based on academic performance rather than on interest or benefit to one’s personal development. Despite (or rather because of) these conflicted feelings, I decided to accept my PBK invitation in hope of utilizing this prestigious membership to reduce the destructive aspects of the current ‘meritocratic’ model and improve societal equity and individual wellbeing in the long run.”
The cohort of new PBK inductees agreed that their experiences in their chosen concentrations have helped them grow and learn.
“My studies in Chemical and Physical Biology have allowed me to have a broad-ranging approach to the life sciences,” says Lydia Pan. “The process of writing a thesis during these circumstances was especially rewarding and allowed me to grow not only as a researcher but also as a more resilient person.”
Taylor Shirtliff-Hinds says the Neuroscience concentration offered the flexibility she needed to pursue her eclectic interests. “I studied Neuroscience on the Mind, Brain, and Behavior track, which allowed me to take a breadth of courses such as linguistics, probability theory, primate social behaviors, sex differences in the brain, biological data analysis, and the intersection of neuroscience and our perception of art: neuroaesthetics,” she says.
Favorite life sciences courses mentioned by the seniors included MCB 100: Experimental Research in Molecular and Cell Biology, which gave Cai her first wet lab experiences and introduced her to the lab in which she would conduct her thesis research; Neuro 125: Molecular Basis of Behavior, which Schnabl says introduced him to the connections between biomolecules and complex behavior; and MCB 112: Biological Data Analysis, which Ambroise credits with expanding her toolkit to include bioinformatics and computer science techniques—which became especially crucial when the pandemic curtailed access to wet labs.
These seniors’ intellectual interests are diverse and far-reaching, including extensive coursework outside of the life sciences. Many of these students have taken advanced courses in languages and say that learning other idioms has broadened their perspectives and informed their future plans in biology and medicine.
“Most recently, my studies in American Sign Language have really been eye opening to me as I have learned about deaf cultures and issues in the deaf community here in the U.S that I was completely unaware of previously,” says Stephen Freeman. “As an aspiring physician, these classes have caused me to think a lot about the role of the healthcare system in propagating issues in the deaf community. For instance, around 70% or more of deaf individuals are born to hearing families and a key source that these parents turn for guidance on how to raise their children are hearing doctors who often do not understand the deaf community or the deaf experience.”
Many of these students found that their interests evolved and complexified during their time at Harvard. “Coming into college excited by the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9, I was set on studying biology and biology only,” says Stephen Freeman. “However, as I took courses like CHEM 27, MCB 112, Physical Sciences 10, I discovered how topics in chemistry, statistics, compsci, and physics were also essential to understanding and appreciating living systems. I felt that CPB emphasized this interconnected approach to understanding life-sciences and it pushed me to expand my understanding of math and science and apply them to problems in biology.”
“While my heart lies in STEM, some of the most impactful classes I took included a WGS course on 21st century feminism, and the famous GENED 1076: Equity and Excellence in K-12 Elementary Schools,” says Shirtliff-Hinds. “These courses in particular helped open my eyes to the inequities that permeate our society and my own internalized biases. I have since joined MCB’s community task force on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, striving to tackle some of these inequities here in the MCB department, and have tutored other students.”
Others were intrigued by interdisciplinary courses in the social sciences. “One of my favorite courses was ANTHRO 1250 taught by Prof. Peter Der Manuelian as it did an excellent job of merging 3D-immersive visualization technology with intriguing lectures to provide one of the most comprehensive introductions to ancient Giza,” says El-Abtah.
“PHIL 11: Philosophy of Law underscored the difficulty of turning basic moral principle into legal practice, and GOV1135: Politics of Development in Africa showed me the various ways in which global inequity continuously hinder political development,” Schnabl says. “GOV1135, in particular, ignited my passion for knowledge beyond the biological sciences while also reinforcing my love for scientific rigor.”
The PBK electees expressed gratitude to many individuals across the MCB, CPB, and Neuroscience community. Concentration advisers Dominic Mao, Monique Brewster, Irina Cashen, and Ryan Draft were frequently mentioned for their ability to both give excellent advice and make the department feel like an intellectual home.
“Without their guidance, I wouldn’t have acclimated as well to the Harvard community and would have never been granted this membership,” Schnabl says. “I am also grateful for my amazing friends that helped me through rough p-set nights and always kept my spirits up.”
Carter Nakamoto agrees, saying, “I am very grateful to everyone in CPB! In particular, Dominic Mao has been a phenomenal advisor since my first days on campus. I am deeply indebted to the rad teachers and friends I got to know through the department.”
These graduating seniors also thanked their faculty, thesis advisers, and lab mentors. “A big thank you to the LS50 course staff, professors, and students for helping me learn so much and truly believe that, I too, could be a researcher,” says Shirtliff-Hinds.
“I would also like to thank all of my peers within the CPB-MCB community who by unabashedly and excitedly pursuing their interests continue to inspire me to pursue my own,” says Ambroise.
Congratulations to these new members of PBK!