Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology


by Cathryn Delude

October 26th, 2009

David Arroyo, an MCO intern from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, poses in front of the poster he created on research done in Professor Scott Edwards's lab

In Summer 2009, 12 undergraduate students from diverse colleges and universities spent eight to ten weeks conducting research in the Molecules, Cells and Organisms (MCO) Program, an interdepartmental Ph.D. training program comprised of faculty from the departments of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB), Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB), Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, and members of the members of the FAS Center for Systems Biology, the Center for Brain Science, the Microbial Science Initiative, and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. The students were participating in several undergraduate summer research internship programs organized by MCO, FAS Center Systems Biology , the Leadership Alliance Summer Internship, and the Exceptional Research Opportunities Programs (EXROP).

These internship programs aim to recruit students from underrepresented groups without a strong presence in science, including minorities and students from educationally or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of these students have never considered applying to an elite institution or pursuing a Ph.D. program or a career in research.

"We realized we really need to reach out to these students and show them that Harvard can be an extraordinary place for them to do research, and also very enjoyable. It's been a real joy to interact with these students," says Catherine Dulac, Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and Chair of MCB. Dulac, who has hosted one or two interns each summer, is convinced the programs are helping many students decide to pursue a career in research.

"Our ultimate goal is to diversify academia at every level, including the professoriate, but we have to start with freshman and then graduate students," explains Thomas Torello, Lecturer on Molecular and Cellular Biology and Life Sciences Concentration Advisor, who coordinates the EXROP and Leadership Alliance summer internships. "Towards that goal, we invite undergraduates who show outstanding potential for a career in science to participate in one of our summer research internships."

Opening their Eyes to Research

However, it is not always easy to attract students from underrepresented groups to Harvard research internships, the organizers concede. Becoming a physician often defines the standard of success in their community, and many students do not realize that science, not just medicine, also makes important contributions to society.

"Almost everyone knows and looks up to at least one physician, but many students don't have any role models in the research world. As a result, many never consider pursuing a career in research or a Ph.D. program," says Victoria D'Souza, Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, who coordinates the MCO summer research internships with Mike Lawrence, Manager of Graduate Programs for MCB. "But that will begin to change when we have more of these students becoming faculty and younger students will see them as role models."

Julio D. Perez, a 2007 Systems Biology intern from the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, is a case in point. He saw posters advertising internships in the continental USA as a benefit for a Ph.D. program, but he wanted to do an M.D. "I was interested in biology and all I knew was medicine as a way to use biological knowledge."

Research Image
Julio D. Perez working at his bench

He was also simply not aware of the joy of research because most undergraduate courses do not include inquiry-based research projects. "Undergraduates rarely see how scientists design the actual experiments that lead to the conclusions that make it into text books," explains Professor Cassandra Extavour, Assistant Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, who hosted Omar Delannoy from Puerto Rico in her lab in the MCO program this summer.

Also, like many students these programs hope to attract, Perez had assumed that Harvard would "never take somebody like me" because he felt inadequately prepared. "But scores have nothing to do with students' ability to do research, and students do not have to have had research experience," says D'Souza. "What matters is whether they have an inquiring mind." To apply, students write an essay about their research interest, which helps the organizers identify faculty with compatible interests. (For the Systems Biology internships, faculty prepare a list of projects and students apply to a specific project.)

Ultimately, the undergraduate summer research programs benefit Harvard as well as the students. "These programs give the students an exposure to research so they can start thinking about a career in research," says Bodo Stern, Director of Research Affairs in the FAS Center for Systems Biology, who coordinates the Systems Biology internships. "For us, the programs are an effective way to identify students who are good candidates for careers in science and who we might attract to our graduate programs."

That is already happening. Julio Perez "caught the research virus," says Dulac, and he is now pursuing a Ph.D. in the MCB department. "The internship opened my eyes to research instead of medicine," Perez says. "I realized that research was very interesting and enjoyable and also very beneficial for society."

Knee Deep in Research

Perez did his 2007 summer internship in Katharina Ribbeck's System's Biology lab on the biophysical aspect of mucous linings. "When I came I didn't know much about the questions I would be working on, but the program and lab provided everything I needed to learn very quickly," he recalls. "I went from not knowing much to being very involved in experiments in just two months."

Perez was entering his senior year when he did his internship, but most of the summer students are rising sophomores or juniors. "Most internship programs don't take rising sophomores because they have had so little experience with labs and coursework. But we find that the younger students do just as well in the program, and we really enjoy working with them," says Stern.

Each summer intern has an individually defined project – from molecular biology to evolutionary biology to computation, from purely theoretically to cells in a dish. Some interns contribute to an ongoing project and others work together on a larger project, and their research may appear in future publications.

"I felt like I was knee deep in research, truly engaging work at the bench, and contributing to the research in the lab!" recalls Aakash Shah, a 2009 Systems Biology intern from Ursinus College who worked in the lab of Roy Kishony, Associate Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

"The interns do the same challenging work as the Harvard students in the lab. They work side-by-side," D'Souza stresses. "The only difference is that Harvard students can continue with their projects during the academic year."

After his summer internship, however, Perez decided to stay on and continue researching at Harvard while finishing his undergraduate coursework by the Internet. During that year, he "fell in love" with neuroscience and is now a second year graduate student in Dulac's lab, investigating how genes control behavior when organisms are stressed.

The Final Poster

The grand finale of the summer happens when students present posters of their projects to Harvard faculty. "When students start their research, they can easily get caught up in the details and lose sight of the big picture. The posters make them think about the scientific questions, hypotheses, experimental design, data, and conclusions," says Torello. "They make it a real science experience, and students go away with something tangible that they can show at conferences."

"We're really proud of the posters the interns prepare," adds Stern. "They are better than most we see at conferences."

The posters could not happen without peer mentors, Harvard graduate students who do not work with the interns in the lab but help them with everything from mundane details of Harvard life to the important poster presentation.

Now that Perez is a Harvard graduate student himself, he served as a peer mentor for the 2009 summer program. "It was really interesting to see students discover research. At first they do not have a real sense of science. Then they start thinking more scientifically and when they present their posters they look like young scientists. It's very rewarding. It shows how positive these internships can be."

Full Exposure

To convince students that research can make an attractive career path, the programs immerse students in the broader academic and social environment. A seminar series introduces them to other Harvard faculty, and students begin to realize they can approach professors to talk not just about their own projects but about science questions in general.

Students visit other academic and research institutions in the area – a favorite is a tour of the Broad Institute's high throughput genome sequencing facility. The programs also host a session on how to apply to Ph.D. programs.

Students live in Harvard dorms and do activities both on campus and in the greater Boston area. "Also, the lab becomes like a family," says D'Souza, and a source of fun.

"Students go away with lots of learning, not just theoretical but about what the life of a researcher is like. It's very important for someone who is trying to decide if they want to do research," Perez says. As for his own decision, he has no regrets. "I'm having a blast."


The Exceptional Research Opportunities Programs (EXROP) summer undergraduate research internship was organized in 2003 as part of the HHMI effort to attract underrepresented groups to careers in scientific research. In 2007, FAS Systems Biology began a summer undergraduate research internship for underrepresented students from both Harvard and other institutions. In 2008, the Leadership Alliance, which is a consortium of 27 participating institutions, began a similar program at Harvard, and the recently formed Molecules, Cells and Organisms (MCO) Program began offering these summer internships in 2009.