SROH Gives Undergrads a Taste of an MCO PhD

August 11, 2022

mco

(l to r, back row) Carlos Rivera-Lopez, Adriana Aguilar-Maldonado, and Claire Ang. (l to r, front row) Camila Cersosimo, Camila Bodden, Karissa Mennes, Yoland Victor, Kristal Stevens, and Natnael Belay (not shown)

 

Undergrads from around the country just wrapped up their taste of what life is like as an MCO PhD candidate, thanks to the 10-week Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard (SROH) Program held in-person this year for the first time since 2019.

“Before coming to the program, I thought I wanted to do a PhD, but I didn’t know if I would be successful,” says MCO SROH participant Camila Cersosimo, a rising junior at the University of Rhode Island. Cersosimo did her SROH research in the Manoharan Lab, studying the effects of pH and temperature on virus disassembly, with implications for drug delivery. “I’m now sure I can do a PhD. I know that I can be good at research and that I actually really enjoy it.”

The SROH program, supported by the Leadership Alliance, provides research opportunities for students from underrepresented populations. Participants are placed in labs conducting research relevant to their personal areas of interest, and attend workshops led by general SROH staff on research communication and other ins and outs of the grad school world. They also attend department-specific workshops organized by graduate students within each specialty.

MCO’s portion has been planned and organized by Claire Ang, who was a peer mentor last year, and Carlos Rivera-Lopez, who was an SROH participant himself in 2018.

“A big thing students take away is realizing that they not only belong in a PhD program, but they belong in a PhD program within Harvard,” says Rivera-Lopez. “I don’t like to use the word misconception, but me coming from Puerto Rico—who would’ve thought that I would come here and be doing research here? So, from my own perspective, participating in SROH really changes what it means to pursue research outside of your own hometown or school town.”

This year’s 20 participants presented their work at a weekend-long conference held from July 29 to July 31. The MCO cohort included:

  • Camila Bodden from Carnegie Mellon University (Working with Alexa Perez-Torres (MCO PhD student) in Andrew Murray’s lab)
  • Natnael Belay from Hope College (Working with Rebecca Freeman (BBS PhD student) in Ya-Chieh Hsu’s lab)
  • Kristal Stevens from Loyola Marymount University (Working with Jeremy Conway (MCO PhD student) in Max Prigozhin’s lab)
  • Yoland Victor from University of Miami (Working with Nicole Bush (MCO PhD student) and Patrick Gainey (MCO student) in Craig Hunter’s lab)
  • Camila Cersosimo from University of Rhode Island (Working with Amelia Paine (Applied Physics PhD student) in Vinny Manoharan’s lab)
  • Karissa Mennes from Capital Community College (Working with Gerardo Zavala (Chemical Biology PhD student) in Rachelle Gaudet’s lab)

The MCO students were not only exposed to the daily life of a researcher, but also had access to all the resources available to Harvard scientists, including the model organisms and microscope facilities. Rivera-Lopez and Ang were excited to provide these uniquely in-person opportunities to students this year after two years of limitations brought about by being online only.

“We wanted them to have exposure to what it means to be a scientist in MCO,” says Ang. “This experience is helping them shape their scientific path forward. So even if they’re working with mice and they say ‘God, I hated this’ they’re learning something from it. I think that’s really valuable.”

Benefits extend beyond the scientific. Professors and graduate students are at participants’ disposal, willing to answer any questions about life as a scientist and how to navigate the intricacies of academia. Many students who complete SROH stay in touch with their mentors, reaching out for letters of recommendation or any other bits of career support.

“Building that foundation is really important for any work in science,” says Adriana Aguilar-Maldonado, an MCO SROH organizer. “That is one of the things that they leave with from this program, along with a lot of tangible skills that they can apply to future research and new questions that they might be interested in tackling.”

Cersosimo understands that feeling. She came into the program as a chemical engineering student, but her work this summer has inspired her to explore biophysics and materials science.

“I am looking at totally different fields after this experience,” she said.

And her answer when asked if her time in SROH now has her planning to apply to Harvard for her PhD?

“Oh yeah. Yes.”