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SROH (Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard) Goes Virtual

SROH (Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard) Goes Virtual

With Harvard’s lab spaces closed, hosting undergraduate interns through the Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard (SROH) program this year seemed like an impossibility. But the SROH leadership found a way to move forward with a virtual program.

“We took more of a proposal writing workshop approach this year…which is completely different from years past,” says SROH co-leader and MCO graduate student Heather Frank (G4) of the Gaudet Lab. Each intern put together a project proposal based on research from their Harvard host lab. These proposals followed the format of applications for NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).

“We wanted them to have something they could take away from the summer and use for graduate school,” Frank says. “Not only did they leave with a proposal they can submit, they also worked on project development and writing skills that are critical for first year graduate students.”

This year’s interns worked remotely, tuning in from locations across North America. Though hands-on benchwork wasn’t an option, they participated in computer-based activities like lab Zoom meetings, bioinformatics, and designing new experiments.

The interns and their project titles were:

  • Sarah Arnold, College of the Holy Cross ‘21: “Identifying Conserved Structure of Non-coding RNAs in Drosophila melanogaster as an Indication of Possible Function” (Rivas Lab)
  • Hailey Gould, State University of New York Fredonia ‘21: “BC200: The Link Between Structure, Function, and Implications in Neurodegenerative Diseases” (D’Souza Lab)
  • Cassidy Johnson, Vanderbilt University ‘22: “Identifying Novel Halogenases from Biosynthetic Gene Clusters Containing Halide-Utilizing Enzymes” (Balskus Lab)
  • Diego Mendez Aviles, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez ‘21: “Investigating the cis-regulatory landscape of acute myeloid leukemia and normal bone marrow cells” (Buenrostro Lab)
  • Damola Ogunlade, University of Pennsylvania ‘22: “Understanding the Role of Glia in a Zebrafish Behavioral Circuit” (Engert Lab)
  • Jose Soto, University of California Riverside ‘21: “Identifying Vacuoles In Human Pre-Implantation Embryos To Improve The Selection Process In IVF” (Needleman Lab)

The SROH program prioritizes including students from underrepresented backgrounds and from smaller colleges. For students with little access to large labs, summer “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” (REUs) like SROH can be crucial preparation for graduate school.

The COVID-19 crisis has made REUs scarce. “Many of the summer research programs some of my peers had applied to started being cancelled,” says Diego Mendez Aviles, who interned in the Buenrostro Lab. “This made me feel a bit fearful of losing the opportunity of participating in a summer research program.”

In early spring, it seemed that SROH would be cancelled as well. But faculty, administrators, and the program’s co-leaders—Frank and MCO graduate student Anna Cha—felt strongly that MCB should offer something. Once they decided to “uncancel” SROH, the team had only a few weeks to put together an entirely new curriculum.

News that SROH was uncanceled was a relief to the interns. “Although I was sad that living in Boston was out of the picture, I was and still am very grateful that a program was put together for us,” says Hailey Gould, who interned in the D’Souza Lab.

Each intern was paired with in-lab mentors, who consulted on scientific projects and gave advice on career development and research life.

“I will remember the connection I made with my advisor the most because she played a great role in making this an awesome virtual experience,” says Damola Ogunlade, who interned in the Engert Lab. “In our weekly meetings, she helped me become comfortable with analyzing electron microscopy images, was always receptive to reading my NSF proposal drafts, and remained encouraging when I was unsure about the next step I should take in the project. I also appreciate the effort she made for all of her summer students to connect through a daily Zoom social hour.”

Working with the SROH students can benefit in-lab mentors, too. Graduate student Kimberley Berg (G2) of the D’Souza Lab said working with Gould helped her zero in on what experiments to pursue. “Hailey’s perspective was invaluable to me in learning how to best frame my project in the future,” Berg says. “I think we both became very eager to see results for experiments that will not happen for a few more months! Patient (but maybe a tad anxious) waiting is a hallmark of science in the time of COVID, but as soon as I have data to share Hailey will be the first to see it!”

“My day was pretty jam packed with tasks to do,” says Jose Soto, who interned in the Needleman Lab. “I would wake up and get ready and then find my way to my computer to attend our meetings for the day….Since we were assigned to a lab, a good portion of my day involved completing my tasks for a project on the computer. After I completed those tasks, I did a lot of literature review and drafting for my NSF grant proposal.”

In addition to learning biology topics like non-coding RNA and glial cells, SROH interns also tried bioinformatics approaches, such as homology searches and R-scape. “Prior to this program, I had very little experience in computational biology,” says Sarah Arnold, who interned in the Rivas Lab. “I was honestly surprised with how much I enjoyed doing it!…It really made me think and challenged me every day.”

Working as a remote intern wasn’t easy. “Cassidy [Johnson] and the other SROH participants displayed an enormous amount of resilience in adapting to remote research, and I was really impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication they brought to the experience in these challenging circumstances,” says CCB faculty Emily Balskus, whose lab hosted Cassidy Johnson as an intern this summer. “My lab really enjoys working with SROH students.”

Elena Rivas, who hosted Arnold, agrees. “I enjoy the openness of the students,” Rivas says.”It reminded me how resilient we all are, and how at the same time we need to be kind with each other.”

The summer was capped off with a Zoom symposium where each intern presented their summer research. During the call, a storm struck Puerto Rico, where Mendez was living. Although everyone at his house was fine, the power went out. Mendez logged on to his phone’s mobile hotspot and gave his presentation anyway. “I had to basically do everything in complete darkness,” he says. “I took a picture of the moment because I thought it was kind of funny.”

Mendez (top row, center) snapped this image of the Zoom Symposium when total darkness descended at his house

For Frank, watching the interns present at the virtual Symposium validated the work she and her colleagues had put into organizing. “Throughout the summer we thought the program was going well but we weren’t quite sure,” she says. ”I could see how much progress everyone made and how much they got out of the program.”

The interns agree that they learned a great deal from online SROH. “What I will remember most is that science and research can be done from anywhere. You don’t have to be in a fancy research lab to think like a researcher,” Gould says. “You can be on your back porch and write a grant proposal.”

“One of the things I learned this summer is to be more independent and confident in my skills as a researcher,” Soto adds. “I have not had this sort of freedom in the past, but I am thankful that I did because it taught me that I do not need to know everything to be an expert, and like everyone in the field, we are all still learning everyday and contributing.”

“Through participating in this program, I learned how to approach a research question and how to investigate it methodically,” Ogunlade says. “I also learned a lot about the daily life of a researcher and the many different avenues that one can take after graduate school besides research, which is something I didn’t expect.”

Members of the MCB community are encouraged to get involved in next year’s SROH program. Frank and Cha are looking for a co-leader of next year’s program, as well as volunteers who can serve as peer advisors, in-lab mentors, and guest speakers for SROH events.

The SROH leadership team hopes next year’s program will be in-person but is preparing for the possibility of another virtual program in 2021.

The 2020 SROH participants are grateful to everyone who contributed to this year’s program. “Despite the current pandemic, I still had the opportunity to learn and grow as a future scientist this summer, and that is something I am so grateful for,” Arnold says.

The program’s co-leaders would also like to express gratitude to all of the volunteers who spoke at the SROH career development workshops, to the mentors and the host labs, to the departmental coordinators, and to the 2020 interns themselves. “Thank you to everyone who helped pull this all together,” Frank and Cha say. “It was truly a group effort that turned out to be a great experience.”

by Diana Crow