On July 28 and 29, students, faculty, and staff convened on Zoom to hear students from both OEB’s E3 (Evolution, Ecology, and Environment) program and MCO’s Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard (SROH) program present their summer research. The symposium’s topics ranged from the origins of life on Earth to chromatin modifications to vaginal microbiomes.
Each presentation prompted lively discussion and follow-up questions. GSAS Dean for Academic Programs and Diversity Sheila Thomas quipped about “gene list staring syndrome”—wherein researchers stare at long lists of genes—and the difficulty of retrieving cloud-based data from home. “You’re just getting the full research experience,” she told one intern.
Each year, SROH programs place undergraduates from colleges across the country in Harvard labs as summer interns. SROH programs prioritize recruiting interns from backgrounds that are underrepresented in STEM and who attend small undergraduate institutions.In addition to in-lab mentorship, MCO’s SROH program also includes a career development workshop, where MCO graduate students guide the interns through the process of drafting an application for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), and peer mentors from other labs who meet with interns weekly. This year’s program took place remotely, but the overall goals remained the same: giving interns the opportunity to network, learn research techniques, and find out what being a molecular biology graduate student is like.This summer, MCO hosted seven SROH interns for six weeks of research and mentorship. The following are the intern names and their projects:
- Nalani Coleman (San Diego State University ‘22): “Determining the optimal CRISPR-based mutagenesis method to recapitulate clinically observed mutations of DNA methyltransferase 3A in hematological malignancies” (mentored by HMS graduate student Emma Garcia, Liau Lab)
- Sofia Jacobson (University of Arizona ‘22): “What was Selection Before Genetics: Review on Prebiotic Vesicles and Protocells” (Szostak Lab)
- Maja Johnson (Amherst College ‘22): “Identifying Fucosidases in the Vaginal Microbiome” (mentored by MCO G4 Paula Pelayo, Balskus Lab)
- Talha Lone (Duquesne University ‘22): “Investigating mechanisms behind axonal mistargeting in callosal projection neurons upon Ctip1 deltion: Multi-omics data integration, interpretation, and implications in autism spectrum disorder” (mentored by MCO G3 Dustin Tillman, Macklis Lab)
- Miliarys Quiñones-Barreto (University of Puerto Rico, Aguadilla, ‘22): “Analysis and classification of gene promoters genome-wide using chromatin state profiling in a multipotent hematopoietic progenitor” (mentored by graduate student Andrew Earl, Buenrostro Lab)
- AbuBakr Sangare (Williams College ‘23): “Investigating RNA Dimerization and its Effect on Frameshifting in HIV-1” (mentored by graduate student Raphael Haslecker, D’Souza Lab)
- Emily Villalpando (University of California Riverside, ‘22): “Analysis of Transporters and Prodrug-Synthesizing Enzymes that Produce Bacterial Toxins” (mentored by SCRB graduate student José Velilla, Gaudet Lab)
MCO’s SROH program is designed and organized by MCO graduate students. “One of the reasons we have graduate students do this is it’s a great learning experience for them, in management,” says Assistant Director of Graduate Programs Fanuel Muindi, who assists in organizing the program.
This year, Anna Cha (G5), Heather Frank (G5, Gaudet Lab), and Carlos Rivera-López (G2, Srivastava Lab) led the program. For Cha and Frank, it was their second time pulling together a virtual research experience, and they were able to draw on feedback from last year’s interns.
Frank says this year’s program focused more on exploring literature around a research topic and writing proposals. “With it being the second year of a pandemic, a lot of students have been lacking research experience, this year we tried to organize a program so they could really see what it’s like to be a first year graduate student,” she says. “Each student had to propose a project, review the literature, and put together a NSF-GRFP proposal relating to their summer research lab and project.”
Rivera-López, who is himself an SROH alumnus, took point on matching the interns with an MCO graduate student “peer mentor.” Unlike the in-lab mentors who guide research, peer mentors are students from other labs and help interns navigate the social and day-to-day aspects of research life.
“Knowing how important peer mentoring was for me, I was looking forward to also trying to connect interns with peer mentors, the same way that I connected with my peer mentor that summer,” Rivera-López says. “Those connections were very important for me while applying to grad school.”
The interns spent their six weeks of SROH tackling an ambitious workload that included reviewing literature, meeting with their labmates and peer mentors, learning new data analysis techniques, writing research proposals, making figures and posters, and putting together symposium presentations. The schedule also included just-for-fun events, including a virtual trivia night.
“My main goal for the summer was simply to learn,” says intern AbuBakr Sangare. “From my liberal arts background, I wanted to learn what research at a larger research university looked like both in and out of the lab. I wanted to learn from the people and from their experiences to have a nuanced understanding of what graduate life looks like holistically.”
Many of this year’s interns focused on bioinformatics and data analysis projects. “One of my favorite things I learned this summer is that I enjoy using computational tools to explore biological questions,” says intern Nalani Coleman. “Prior to this research experience, I had very little experience with coding. My research experience allowed me to begin learning a new skill, coding in Python, which I hope to continue to use in my graduate studies and will benefit me throughout the rest of my scientific career.”
Some of the host labs found creative ways to connect their interns with their labmates. The Gaudet Lab included intern Emily Villalpando in their weekly “Tea Time” tradition. “Every week I would meet with a different member of the lab to chat over some tea or lunch,” Villalpando says. “It was great to meet the entire lab in a more casual setting, something we don’t always have the opportunity to do over Zoom…Some good tea was spilled during Tea Time!”
The SROH experience convinced multiple interns to apply to graduate programs in molecular biology. “My experience at SROH strengthened my decision to apply for PhD programs in the future,” says intern Miliarys Quiñones-Barreto. “The research I conducted at MCO helped define my interests in Genetics [and] Genomics. It also provided me with resources to prepare the required materials for graduate school applications, such as the personal/research statements and the CV.”
The interns expressed gratitude to their mentors, their labmates, the faculty who hosted them, and the SROH organizers.
“I’m very thankful for my SROH experience, which helped me with fellowship application writing, making connections, and exploring a new field of research!” says Villalpando. “I especially loved the many faculty, grad student, and alumni panels throughout the program that exposed us to personal experiences and advice from so many people who were once in my position!…Everyone was very open to answering all of my questions about their research or even graduate school advice, which I really appreciated.”
Though this year’s program just wrapped, SROH organizers are already pondering next year. Rivera-López will continue his leadership role, but Cha and Frank are handing off their responsibilities to new graduate student organizers.
Recruiting host labs and peer mentors also requires year-round planning. Anyone interested in contributing to next year’s SROH should reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org as soon as feasible. Frank adds, “Reach out to anyone who’s been involved and get to know what the experience is like. You can talk to anyone, and we’ll be happy to share our experiences.”