Every year, a handful of undergraduates from colleges around the country conduct summer research in Harvard labs through a program called Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard (SROH). This year, the MCB department welcomed six SROH interns, including the program’s first-ever international student via a collaboration with an educational nonprofit called Clubes de Ciencia in Mexico.
This year’s interns and their research project titles are:
- Juan Carlos Martinez Cervantes (Biotechnological Engineering major at Instituto Politecnico Nacional): “Role of Protein Degradation in Stress-induced Neuromodulation in elegans” Zhang Lab
- Marlin Figgins (Mathematics and Biology major at University of Chicago): “Genius Flies: Individual Differences in Learning within Isogenic Drosophila Populations” de Bivort Lab
- Emily Harrison (Chemistry major at Gettysburg College): “Design and Synthesis of NNMT Inhibitors for the Treatment of Obesity and Cancer” Shair Lab
- Keri Ngo (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Boston University) “Investigation of the Structures of Pcdhγ C3, C4, C5” Gaudet Lab
- Josephine Tang (Biology and Theology major at Boston College): “Characterization of the VEGF-Ax mRNA Readthrough Element” D’Souza Lab
- Paloma Tuttle (Chemistry major at Florida International University) “Isolation of Sanglifehrin A as a Chemical Probe to Characterize Induced Protein-Protein Interactions” Woo Lab
For students at small colleges, the opportunity to conduct summer research at major research universities can make a world of difference. “SROH was my first time performing research beyond small independent projects, so I entered the program very nervous and insecure about my lack of experience,” says Emily Harrison, who interned in the Shair lab. “The incredible resources and guidance available to me throughout the program were exactly what I needed in order to quickly adjust to the demands of performing research at a top institution like Harvard and make the most of my summer.”
Every year, the MCO grad students who coordinate the SROH program comb through dozens applications with an eye toward including students from colleges that don’t have extensive research infrastructure. “The people who are already thinking about research programs are not the ones who need the help,” says MCB grad student and head peer mentor Korleki Akiti, who was an SROH intern in 2013 and went on to join the Uchida lab where they interned. “The ones who are thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not even qualified for these programs.’ or ‘I didn’t know that these programs existed.’ are the ones we most want to reach.”
Recruiting students from far-flung colleges can be a challenge, but this year the SROH student leaders teamed with an international non-profit to diversify the applicant pool. The non-profit, Clubes de Ciencia, organizes workshops where US-based grad students and postdocs travel to Latin America to teach undergraduate and high school students about their field. Workshop leaders from the Mexican chapter nominated several promising students from the workshops and gave them feedback on drafts of their SROH applications. In the end, one Mexican student, Juan Carlos Martinez Cervantes, was selected for SROH 2017.
Once the interns are chosen, Harvard’s SROH coordinators pair each of the interns with Harvard grad students who have volunteered to be peer mentors for the SROH interns. Each peer mentor serves as a sounding board for the intern throughout their 10 weeks at Harvard. The Harvard grad student coordinators also place the interns in Harvard MCB labs, based on the interns’ self-declared research interests. When the interns arrive, they start spending full days in the lab right away.
“I never had a typical day,” says Marlin Figgins, who interned in the de Bivort lab. “Every day was filled with new interesting questions and I never spent two days working on the same thing…Science goes, and a lot of the time it goes wrong, but we keep at it despite this.”
In addition to their research and their sessions with peer mentors, the SROH interns meet with faculty from around the department, take online GRE prep courses, learn MATLAB, prepare and present posters summarizing their research, and attend MCB social gatherings such as TGIF. “They have a lot on their plate,” says Akiti. “They also want to hear more from the grad students, so we try to give them a lot of opportunities to talk to us, but not so many that they’re overwhelmed.”
Each weekend of the program includes a peer mentor outing, where the interns and their grad students visit sites around the Boston metro area. One of this year’s highlights was a tour of the Taza Chocolate Factory in Somerville. “Everybody had really positive reviews, because it was chocolate,” Akiti said.
Several of the interns noted sense of camaraderie in the MCB department. “You can easily tell that everyone at Harvard is genuine and passionate about their work and that Harvard’s atmosphere is very collaborative and conducive to helping everyone become better scientists,” says Keri Ngo, who interned in the Gaudet lab.
Despite the plethora of networking opportunities, labwork remains the centerpiece of the program. “The most significant part for me was, in fact, the experience of working full-time in a research lab,” says Paloma Tuttle, who interned in the Woo lab. “It’s difficult as an undergraduate to prioritize lab work along with studies and extracurricular activities. But SROH offered me the opportunity to immerse myself into fascinating research at an excellent institution and offer me a glimpse at a potential graduate school experience.”
Akiti’s own experience as an SROH intern echoes the 2017 interns’ experience. “As a sophomore, I had never done a poster presentation or made a poster at all before…I got so much support for my poster from one of my peer mentors, so that was really a game-changing experience for me,” Akiti says. “To be able to consolidate all of the things I had learned over the summer and put it into a professional poster and presentation, so that really boosted my confidence in myself and in my abilities as a scientist.”
It’s not unusual for students from underrepresented groups to talk themselves out of applying for internships at prestigious institutions, but Akiti stressed that the program’s goal is to include students from a wide range of backgrounds. “Students who feel like, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t be good at this, so I shouldn’t even apply,” those are the students that we want to reach,” says Akiti. “If the students who know about [summer research] could recommend it to their friends or younger classmates, it would be absolutely a game-changer for them.”
One common misconception about undergrad research experiments is that they are only for students who are certain they will go on to grad school. That’s not the case, says Akiti. “Maybe while you’re applying to this program, you don’t know whether you want to go to grad school or not. That’s fine. It’ll benefit you regardless,” says Akiti. The majority of SROH interns do go on to either grad school or medical school, but many have gone on to jobs as research assistants.
“I would say, ‘Absolutely go for it!’…You do not need significant research experience prior to this program,” Akiti adds. “Don’t be afraid to apply even if you think you don’t have enough experience.”