This summer, Harvard’s MCO program hosted seven undergraduate researchers through the Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard (SROH) internship program. The interns spent ten weeks performing experiments in Harvard labs, attending career development workshops, and meeting with assigned MCO grad student peer mentors. Highlights included a workshop featuring a panel of graduate students from each G-year, a Fourth of July picnic, and a just-for-fun weekend expedition to the Boston Harbor Islands.
“This year was such a vibrant year amongst the students and the mentors. I felt like they bonded really quickly,” says MCO graduate student and SROH student coordinator Korleki Akiti. “Our main angle was to make the students a part of the community and have them work with their grad students and really foster these connections.“
By the end of the summer, each SROH intern completed a poster and presented their work at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium (LANS) in Hartford, CT. The underlying goal was to offer career development opportunities that the interns might not have at their home institutions.
This year’s SROH interns and their poster titles are:
- Summer Blanco (of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona): “Pollen Magnetofection: Developing a Novel Transformation Technique in Aquilegia Coerulea (Columbines)” (Kramer Lab)
- Laura Briggs (of Emory University): “Developing methods to identify small molecules that bind and inhibit the HIV-1 pre-initiation complex” (D’Souza Lab)
- Karla Sofia Reyes Aguirre (of Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León): “Developing new tools for rapid in vivo genetic manipulation” (Hsu Lab)
- Carlos Rivera López (of University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez): “Uncovering Subcellular Localization and Substrate Specificity of the TPR Domain of O-GlcNAc Transferase” (Woo Lab)
- Uriah Sanders (of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona): “Investigation of the temporal and spatial expression of KNUCKLES as a candidate gene regulating stem cell proliferation in Aquilegia flowers” (Kramer Lab)
- Agnele Sewa (of Brandeis University): “Structural and Functional Characterization of Nramp-Family Metal Transporters” (Gaudet Lab)
- Linda Wiratan (of University of Maryland, Baltimore County): “mRNA Transport between Mouse and Human Cells” (Hunter Lab)
Diversity is a core value for SROH. “This [scientific] discovery process is only possible because different people bring different perspectives to it,” Akiti explains. “If you’re building a lab or building program with all students that come from the same background and all have the same perspective, you’re just not going to get the same results.”
To that end, SROH teamed with an educational nonprofit called Clubes de Ciencia for the second year in a row to bring an international student to the program. Karla Sofia Reyes Aguirre arrived from Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León in Mexico and helped to develop a technique for altering gene expression in mouse skin cells in the Hsu lab.
“My lab mentors and my PI were always willing to help and guided me to approach the right questions regarding my project; they always trusted on me even if I failed,” Reyes Aguirre says. “My peer mentor was amazing, he was the person I could tell any inquietude and ask any question at any time, not only about my research project but also about future professional decisions.”
SROH’s commitment to diversity is also reflected in its emphasis on recruiting interns from small or non-research schools. “If you’re in a research-heavy institution, there’s actually a way research is taught that makes you think a certain way,” says Akiti. “And I think if you come from an institution where research isn’t is as heavy, you aren’t as ingrained in that way of thinking.”
However, students at small schools often have fewer opportunities to do laboratory research and less support for applying to prestigious science grad programs, compared to students who are already coming from highly-specialized institutions.The SROH program hopes to level the playing field by seeking out diverse students who are likely to gain the most from a summer at Harvard.
“Having that as an explicit mission, I take it as sort of a personal challenge to look at these applications and ask myself, ‘On this list of applicants, who can we help the most?’” says MCO grad student and SROH program coordinator Elizabeth May.
Once the interns arrive, the whirlwind begins. In addition to placing the interns in labs right way, Akiti, May, and other grad students organized a series of weekly workshops on topics such as CV writing, poster design, and grad student life. Interns also went on weekend non-science-related outings, such as a tour of Taza Chocolate Factory, and consulted with grad student peer mentors about once per week. May encouraged the peer mentors to meet with their interns often by offering prizes to the mentors who had at least nine meetings over the ten weeks.
Receiving such mentorship can make a big difference for undergrads who are preparing to apply to grad schools or who want to learn more about what happens in large research labs. “They [the faculty and mentors involved in SROH] all helped me develop better versions of my CV and my Statement of Purpose for my future applications,” says Carlos Rivera López, who interned in the Woo lab. “In lab, Christina Woo and Daniel Ramírez taught me lab techniques and procedures that I do not have access to in my home institution.”
The interns found that conducting experiments could be challenging, but the experience taught them to approach obstacles like a scientist. “My faculty mentor, Dr. Craig Hunter, and the post-doc I worked with, Andrey Shubin, are some of the best mentors I have ever had,” says Linda Wiratan. Her project tackled a longstanding problem in biology: Researchers think that mammalian cells can transfer messenger RNA from one cell to another, but no one has ever demonstrated the phenomenon directly. Wiratan’s goal was to gather direct evidence for mRNA transfer in mammalian cells. Though she didn’t accomplish this ambitious goal, her lab mentors made a big impression on her.
“They were supportive, insightful, passionate about their work, and best of all, they treated me like a peer rather than just a ‘summer student,” Wiratan says. “We had a lot of setbacks and obstacles while working on our project, but I admire Andrey for seeing each challenge as an opportunity to dig deeper into the literature, consolidate data and ideas, or to think creatively. This is the kind of resilience I aspire to have as a scientific researcher.”
These behind-the-scenes experiences also helped the interns gain perspective and likely inform their career decisions going forward. “I think I’ll most remember the advice given to us by the various MCO faculty at Harvard during our weekly meetings,” says Summer Blanco, who interned in the Kramer lab. “Hearing their passions, experiences, and guidance helped me develop a better understanding of life in academia.”
Toward the end of the summer, the SROH interns and their mentors headed to Hartford, Connecticut to share their posters with fellow undergrads at the Leadership Alliance National Alliance. The symposium was hosted by The Leadership Alliance, an organization that promotes academic and career development for students from underrepresented groups. One of the highlights of the symposium was the poster session, where the interns had the chance to share their research with peers from other institutions.
“When I was going around during the poster session, I focused less on the specific research that they were doing, and more on how they were communicating the research to me,” says Akiti, who attended at poster session at Harvard, where the SROH interns also presented. Akiti tends to ask lots of rapid-fire questions while making rounds at poster sessions, but the interns took it in stride, impressing Akiti. “I focused less on the specific research that they were doing, and more on how they were communicating the research to me,” they say. “When I was talking to Uriah [Sanders, who interned in the Kramer lab], I asked him about a floral species that was closely related to the one he was working on…And he was able to answer these questions [about gene expression in a different flower] on the fly. When I was talking to him, I could tell that he had a lot more knowledge about his project than just what was required for this poster.”
Akiti says they experienced the same phenomenon when they were an SROH intern. “At the beginning, the students are kind of unsure of themselves and they just want to memorize everything they can about their project,” they explain. “But then eventually, towards the end of the summer…they kind of become a mini-expert on their own project.” The results of that process were really cool to see, Akiti adds.
The SROH interns agreed that the summer was a great experience and would encourage other undergrads to seek out summer research opportunities. Wiratan’s advice for younger undergrads who aren’t sure what topics they’d like to research is to just start reading lots of recent papers and see what appeals. “Ask yourself: Does the paper excite you? Do you want to see how it is done in real life, day-to-day?” she says. “Are you amazed by particular discoveries/questions/problems the paper describes? If yes to any of these, strongly consider applying to labs/institutions with that research!”
Blanco adds that it’s important for students from small colleges or underrepresented groups to put themselves out there and apply for SROH and similar programs. “Don’t tell yourself no or self-select,” she advises. “Academia is a changing space where all bodies and abilities are welcome, even at ‘prestigious institutions.’ Don’t be afraid to ask questions and communicate what you need to the folks around you, most people are willing to give you a hand, but you need to take the first step!”