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Undergraduate Spotlight: Aba Sam (Neuroscience ‘21)

Undergraduate Spotlight: Aba Sam (Neuroscience ‘21)

Neuroscience concentrator Aba Sam (’21, Dulac Lab) says the strangest part of being on campus for thesis research has been the quiet. In past semesters, her schedule was typically packed with classes, study sessions, and meetings in far-flung buildings, and, as a past president of the Harvard Black Students Association (BSA), she was often in the thick of planning in-person events.

This semester, she has been doing almost everything—coursework, serving on MCB’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) task force and MCB’s website committee, thesis data analysis, and co-directing the peer counseling group Room 13—from the desk in her room.

“It’s still busy,” Sam says. “You’re still doing a lot of work, because classes are still happening, but it’s more stationary now and quieter.”

At times, adjusting has been hard. “The most important part for me has been being realistic about everything that’s going on and being kind to myself,” Sam says. “It is not practical for you to sit down and want to accomplish 17 tasks in one day, because you won’t. So I think planning around that has been a skill that I’ve been trying to build…I’ve just been engaging in things that I’m really passionate about.”

By joining the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) task force and MCB’s website committee, Sam became one of the first undergraduates to join an MCB departmental committee. She is also co-director of the peer counseling group Room 13 (which recently began offering drop-in hours over Zoom), and a past president of the Harvard Black Students Association (BSA).

“I’m working with people who are really inspiring,” she says, citing her lab mates and student leaders of Black student organizations as examples. “Seeing how they’re able to be rock stars through everything helps me keep going.”

Sam hails from Southbury, Connecticut and is the child of two doctors who immigrated from Ghana. Growing up, she pestered her parents with questions about biology. Interacting with her brother who is on the autism spectrum sparked a keen interest in neuroscience. “I was very curious about the brain and why his communication was different from mine, and I think that’s what drew me toward neuro specifically, just trying to understand him better, and it grew into trying to understand the brain better,” she says.

Harvard’s Black student community and Black student organizations have been vital to Sam. When she first began science classes, inclusion was not always forthcoming. “I’d be in section, and we’d be forming groups, and no one would want to work with me. That’s not new, but it’s so incredibly disheartening,” Sam recalls. “The first time I felt like people looked me in the eye and said, ‘Oh, I’m glad you’re here’ was through Black culture and Black orgs.”

In her freshman year, Sam joined the Black Student Association’s First-Year Table. As a sophomore, she was elected vice-president of BSA, and, in her junior year, she became the organization’s president. Many of her duties in BSA revolved around planning community events and coordinating with other Black student organizations. This year, she has been cheering on the BSA board. “Black Convocation happened, and it was virtual, and it was beautiful,” Sam says. “I think it takes a lot of energy to get people to engage online, to show up and show out, but they’ve been doing a really good job.”

The acceptance and belonging she found through the Black student community helped Sam pursue her academic interests. “Getting involved in those communities in places where you feel supported gives you strength,” she says. “It gives me the strength to engage in places where it was more difficult and I felt less supported and less welcome.”

In 2019, Sam spotted an article in The Harvard Gazette about an undergraduate in the Dulac Lab studying the “fever effect” in autism, where many autistic people exhibit fewer autism symptoms during a fever. For instance, many autistic kids will spend less time on repetitive movements or become more communicative while they have a high temperature.

Sam joined the Dulac Lab and began her own experiments on the fever effect in mice last November. “Catherine [Dulac] and Jessica [Osterhout], the postdoc I was under, were very receptive from the start,” Sam says. “I got really lucky…They really support us and are invested in our projects and who we are as people.”

In the experiments, Sam injects autism model mice with either LPS, a solution that causes fever symptoms in mice, or a saline solution as a control and records the mice’s social behavior after injection.

When Harvard labs closed down in March, Sam was disappointed but has been analyzing the data she has collected so far. Many of her classmates have been in the same boat. “It’s been sad, because the reason that we do these thesis projects is these projects are exciting,” Sam says.

“Despite the significant setback of the labs closing, she really helped the project move forward by performing substantial analysis of the data from home,” says Sam’s advisor Catherine Dulac. “Moreover, the lockdown was also a good time to catch up with the long list of key reading in our area of research, and she was an active participant in our lockdown series of journal clubs. She is now back to the lab, and I am delighted to see that her project is already producing some exciting results. In addition, Aba is committed to making STEM a more equitable and inclusive space, so that’s one more important role she is playing in the lab and at Harvard!”

Sam first heard about the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging task force at a lab Zoom meeting this past summer  and decided to join. “Mostly what I do, along with other undergraduates [on the task force], is try to provide an undergrad voice about where we feel support could be better and where we think things could more easily accessed for people who aren’t extra savvy about how departments work,” she says.

The DIB task force has been adding student representatives to departmental committees. Sam chose the MCB Website Committee, which is tasked with brainstorming ideas for MCB news pieces, reviewing drafts, and approving content. “This seems like a great opportunity to shed more light on what people in the department are doing and building community,” Sam says. “I think that’s even more important to do now that we’re apart.”

When she’s not working on classwork or projects, Sam unwinds by watching movies. Her recent favorites include Moonlight, Booksmart, and Knives Out.

For now, Sam and her classmates are hanging in there. “Making a community, like we are, more inclusive, more accessible, and more welcoming isn’t an end goal that we’re trying to reach; it’s a constant adjustment that everybody makes every day, conscious choices that everybody makes every day,” she says. “So you don’t have to be on a committee or have a position to be the difference between somebody saying, ‘Yeah, MCB, I love it here. I feel like I can engage with this place’ or not.”

by Diana Crow

Aba Sam

Aba Sam