Tessa Montague, originally from London and now a fifth-year MCO graduate student in the Schier lab, is not afraid of work. Besides maintaining her own graduate research and planning for her postdoc career, she has been involved in many outreach initiatives over the last few years. These have included working as a teaching fellow for the Life Sciences Outreach spring program, running a zebrafish development lab for visiting middle school students from the Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn — in 2015 and 2016 — and mentoring undergraduate student Ashley Ngo through the Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard (SROH) program. Just this month she ran an adapted zebrafish lab for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with help from her friend Rafiq Abdus-Sabur of the Empowered Brain Institute.
“I just really like doing teaching and outreach to complement research,” Montague said of her packed schedule. “It can be a lot, but I really like doing them side by side.”
Montague is especially passionate about bringing students from underrepresented groups into the labs for a first-hand look at how exciting science can be.
“My main motivation is getting people excited about science,” she said. “The more that I reflect on where I am and what I’m doing, the more I realize that I am in such a privileged position. For the students passing through, I want to show them why science is cool, empower them, and make them realize that anyone can be a scientist.”
Montague also believes that Professor Schier’s zebrafish facilities are ideal for getting younger students interested in science. The noise of the tanks, the smell of the fish, and the ability to allow students to set up experiments without worrying about fragile equipment makes the labs a dynamic, exciting space for teaching. Montague said that the Mott Hall Bridges students were especially enthusiastic, and that their visit was one of the best experiences of her life. The teacher even took some fish back to New York for use in their home classroom.
“The reason I got into developmental biology is because I had an experience as a high school student working on chick embryos,” she said. “I was instantly so excited when I saw the little chick embryo for the first time, and its tiny little heart beating. That captivated me, and made me fall in love with science.”
The students invited to Schier’s lab get to set up mating experiments, see fish embryos under a microscope, and help feed the almost 100,000 fish contained in the facility. Although this setup is ideal for many students, Montague knows that it could be overwhelming for the students with ASD. Based on a similar project from the Boston Children’s museum, Montague and Abdus-Sabur wrote a “social story” for the visiting students with ASD, detailing what they can expect to see, hear, and smell while visiting the labs. They also planned for places to take students if they begin to feel overwhelmed.
“The greatest challenge was making sure that every child was happy and comfortable throughout the lab,” Montague said. “Children with ASD often experience sensory sensitivity, so to overcome that we talked ahead of time about why the facility is so hot, why there is the noise, and I described the environment a few times to prepare everyone so there wouldn’t be any surprises.”
“It was really rewarding to watch the children react to seeing the little embryos under the microscope for the first time,” she said. “It was also really nice to be able to offer this lab to the children with ASD as well as their families. It’s really special to watch parents and children put on their lab coats and goggles side-by-side, work together to feed the fish, and share the new experience.”
For her own career, Montague plans to continue as a postdoc, and hopes to someday have her own lab. She also plans to continue with her outreach efforts for as long as she can.
“I feel very passionately about education, particularly educating younger children from middle school to high school age,” she said. “I think that is a real watershed for them. Ideally, I would love to be in a situation where I have my own research lab, and then I can create programs with local schools and figure out a way to engage young kids in science.”
Tessa (bottom right) with participants in one of this year’s adapted zebrafish labs.