A college student could imagine many ways to spend a summer, but for 11 undergraduates at universities from the Caribbean to California, an uncommon passion for science and an eagerness for immersion in current, world-class research made joining Picower Institute labs a compelling choice.
At a bustling poster session in early August where they presented their work, it was clear that the students hailing from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds and non-research intensive home institutions, made the most of their participation in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) in Biology and Brain and Cognitive Neuroscience. They said the experience, skills, contacts, and inspiration they gained can advance their academic ambitions.
Above: Miriam Goras of Arizona State shows her poster to Professor Elly Nedivi, whose lab hosted Goras for the summer.
Performing experiments to study possible treatments for the developmental vision disorder amblyopia in the lab of Picower Professor Mark Bear gave Alysa Alejandro-Soto, a student at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez an inspiring exposure to fundamental lab neuroscience that can also have direct, future relevance to patients, she said.
“I really wanted to do neuroscience research but I hadn’t been able to do it in my undergraduate studies,” she said of her work alongside postdoctoral mentor Hector de Jesús-Cortés. “I want to do an MD/PhD and it’s really exciting for me to see how this could be applied clinically.”
Hanoka Belai said that her summer in the lab of Latham Family Associate Professor Myriam Heiman has recharged her interest in pursuing a neuroscience degree. A biotechnology major at Roxbury Community College, Belai said her research with postdoctoral mentor Brent Fitzwalter to advance a novel strategy for treating the terminal neurodegenerative condition Huntington’s disease was exciting because she wants to learn science to help people.
Heiman said she was delighted to host two MSRP students this summer. Along with Belai, she and graduate student Preston Ge also welcomed Rim Bozo who is on her way to Dartmouth College after graduating from Pioneer Charter School Of Science near Boston. Bozo said the chance to go from high school labs to working on studies of Parkinson’s disease at MIT provided exceptional preparation for college.
“They are both outstanding young scientists,” Heiman said. “The MSRP students are always very motivated and eager to learn so we always look forward to working with them.”
In all, eight Picower labs hosted at least one MSRP student.
Paola Alicea-Román from the University of Puerto Rico, Humacao, first worked with the Bear lab last summer, but could only do so virtually because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even though her research applying a deep learning algorithm to assess the vision of mice with amblyopia was computational, she said, she reveled in the chance to be in the lab in person this year. Being there not only allowed her to help shape the experiments providing the data, it also gave opportunities to network with professors, fellow women in science and graduate students.
Relationships and mentorship are an especially important component of MSRP for many students who participate. Sonia Okekenwa, a student at Fisk University in Nashville, said a particularly valuable aspect of her work in the lab of Picower Professor Li-Huei Tsai was the frequent dialogue she had with postdoctoral mentor Vishnu Dileep and other lab members, who challenged her to think deeply about what she was finding out in her research mapping where DNA breaks open to enable neuronal processes (see p. 2).
Miriam Goras of Arizona State, who worked in the lab of William R. and Linda R. Young Professor Elly Nedivi with postdoc Baovi Vo, said she similarly valued the challenge of having to figure out genuine problems with no pre-determined answers. For instance, during her work this summer studying the molecular biology of treatment for bipolar disorder, she had to dig into the scientific literature to troubleshoot biochemical methods in the optimization of her cell culture experiment.
Several other Picower MSRP students, who included Jordina Pierre of the University of the Virgin Islands, Miguel Coste of Notre Dame, Joshua Powers of George Washington University, Patricia Pujols of Bayamon Central University, and Hannah Caris of Pomona College said they also valued the exposure, training, and guidance they gained through MSRP, which is coordinated by Director of Diversity and Science Outreach Mandana Sassanfar.
Powers, in fact, was back for his fourth summer after first engaging with MIT programs as a high schooler. His experience in the Flavell lab with postdoc Cassi Estrem has helped him clarify that he wants to pursue research as a career.
“The Flavell lab continues to show support for me, to teach me and go out of their way to make sure I'm keeping up with them for my benefit,” he said.
For Powers and his colleagues, these have been summers well spent.