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SROH 2023 Introduces Undergrads to Life as MCO Student

SROH 2023 Introduces Undergrads to Life as MCO Student

For 10 weeks over the summer, five undergraduate scientists from around the country were given the opportunity to live like a Harvard MCO graduate student as part of the Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard (SROH) Program.

“The thought of applying to a school with the reputation that Harvard has was daunting,” says Aleksya Drobshoff, a rising senior at California State University – Channel Islands. “However, when I got here all of my own preconceived notions were really thrown out the window. There wasn’t a single person who wasn’t willing to give advice and act as some kind of guide. I liked seeing how well everyone got along with one another and would emphasize work-life balance and being a human being. I also got training and access to a ton of facilities within my 10 weeks and the structure of the MCO program made me really motivated to want to apply and hopefully attend Harvard in the future.”

The SROH program, supported by the Leadership Alliance, provides research opportunities for students from underrepresented populations. Participants are placed in labs conducting research relevant to their personal areas of interest, and attend workshops led by general SROH staff on research communication and other ins and outs of the grad school world. They also attend department-specific workshops organized by graduate students within each specialty.

MCO’s portion has been planned and organized by Claire Ang and Adriana Aguilar-Maldonado, with support from Juan Orozco and Emily Villalpando, who was a 2021 SROH participant.

“Coming from being in the program myself as an undergrad and then trying to help out now this year, it feels good to know that these people are also going to have a similar experience to me where the connections that they’re making last even after SROH ends,” says Villalpando. “When this year’s students ultimately apply for grad school, I really hope they are comfortable enough to reach out to us again and we can help throughout that process just like Adriana and my SROH PI Rachelle Gaudet helped me.”

This year’s students presented their work at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium from July 28 to 30th in Hartford, CT. The MCO cohort included:

  • Rey Zavala from California State University-San Bernardino
    • Working with Dennis Brookner (MCO PhD student) in Doeke Hekstra’s lab.
    • “I performed evolutionarily inspired mutagenesis on hsDHFR purposed to restore a stronger basis of ligand flux and remove product inhibition in hsDHFR.”
  • Aleksya Drobshoff from California State University-Channel Islands
    • Working with Jeremy Conway (MCO PhD student) in Max Prigozhin’s lab.
    • “I worked on characterizing the cathodoluminescence of lanthanide doped nanoparticles in resin for 3D electron microscopy to do cellular protein labeling.”
  • Ethan Rothschild from the University of Houston
    • Working with Eric Fields (MCO PhD student) & Jaime Martinez Grundman (Postdoctoral fellow) in Ryan Nett’s lab.
    • “I characterized neofunctionalized ‘Carbonic Anhydrase Like’ enzymes (CAL) previously discovered by Dr. Nett.”
  • Kayla Carmichael from Xavier University of Louisiana
    • Working with Alexa Pérez-Torres (MCO PhD student) in Andrew Murray’s lab
    • “I investigated the impact of a truncated Swi4 protein on the fitness of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast) strains that lack transcriptional regulation during the cell cycle.”
  • Earick Cagang from La Sierra University
    • Working with Vincent Pham (Postdoctoral fellow) & Gabby Law (Virology PhD student) in Victoria D’Souza’s lab
    • “I investigated HIV Reverse Transcriptase(RT) and its remodeling activity function during DNA Synthesis Initiation—a crucial step of reverse transcription and the life cycle of HIV.”

“This year’s cohort was particularly special to me, not only because it may be the last SROH cohort I work with, but also because we asked them to do a lot and they truly made the most of it,” says Ang. “When we gave them facetime with Harvard faculty, they were engaged with their research, and they effectively used the time to learn about all the different career paths one can take to be successful in science. Wherever they go, I hope they never lose that ability to ask questions fearlessly, and connect with their scientific communities.”

The MCO SROH program allows students to understand the ins and outs of being a graduate student at Harvard, and this year’s program focused on introducing participants to the myriad facilities available to students throughout the university.

“One of the things we wanted to do this year was highlight even more of the opportunities there are within a huge school like Harvard,” says Aguilar-Maldonado. “The kinds of professors that exist in these different spaces.”

Beyond working in labs, participants toured various model organism facilities and MCO labs, and were introduced to labs and resources at the Harvard Medical School campus and the Arnold Arboretum across the river.

“We took the students beyond the main campus to show them the kinds of connections and interests they could cultivate across the river,” says Ang. “MCO is all about diversity of scientific questions and interests and we got to emphasize more fields, like plant biology and evolution during the Arboretum visit, as well as more translational research with our visit to HMS.”

Participants also attended weekly seminars on research being done across campus and were treated to movie nights and other casual group experiences that helped them bond with each other and with their mentors.

“My overall experience at Harvard MCO was truly wonderful and it solidified my aspirations to have research as a career,”  “I will for sure keep in contact with all my mentors and my PI, Dr. Victoria D’Souza, as they profoundly influenced my career path. I hope that other students that are considering research as a career get to experience the impact SROH has had on me.”

SROH’s main goal is to prove to undergraduates that they belong at Harvard. In fact, since the program’s inception nine students have been accepted to the MCO graduate program.

“We’ve spent a lot of time this summer reminding them that they’re literally doing the kind of work  they would be doing as a graduate student if they were to apply here,” says Orozco. “The barrier for applying here shouldn’t be themselves.”


(l to r) Juan Orozco, Rey Zavala, Earick Jastine Cagang, Aleksya Drobshoff, Kayla Carmichael, Ethan Rothschild, Claire Ang, and Adriana Aguilar-Maldonado (not shown Emily Villalpando)

(l to r) Juan Orozco, Rey Zavala, Earick Jastine Cagang, Aleksya Drobshoff, Kayla Carmichael, Ethan Rothschild, Claire Ang, and Adriana Aguilar-Maldonado (not shown Emily Villalpando)