SPOTLIGHTING SCIENTISTAS: Local Edition
We interviewed four girls who study in STEM fields at Harvard, to see how they’ve enjoyed the experience so far, and to ask what advice they might have for prospective concentrators. We posed the same set of questions to each, adjusting for their specific fields; the questions were:
- What’s the most fascinating aspect of your field to you? Do you love what you study? Why?
- Which classes have you taken in your field that you’ve loved? Have there been any that you strongly disliked or have been really bored in?
- Do you study anything else at Harvard (double major/minor/citation)? Do you find that the two fields intersect at all? How do you feel about interdisciplinary work?
- If you were to pick any other major, what would it be?
- Do you have a favorite moment connected to your studies?
- Have you done any research in your field? What’s that like for you?
- How do you think your studies will contribute to any of your future schooling or career plans?
- Any advice to others hoping to study in these fields?
Below are their insights, narratives and pointers.
Junior, Adams House, Mathematics
“I love how math lets you see everyday parts of life in a completely different way. For example, one problem we had was classifying the uppercase letters in the English alphabet into homeomorphism classes. Roughly, this means into groups of letters that can be bent or stretched into each other, like U, C, I, J or Y and T. It's fun to understand not only the solution to a problem, but the underlying logic behind WHY that's the solution.
Probably one of my favorite math classes was Math 23. I took it freshman fall and it kind of blew my mind. Proofs were so incredibly different from math I'd done in high school, so it felt like I was discovering math all over again.
I'm really interested in politics and policy, so I spend a fair bit of time at the Institute of Politics. I can definitely see a mixture of the two fields in using mathematical techniques to solve problems inspired by political issues. Some other indisciplinary mixes aren't as easy to make work, like my citation with Mandarin. I did manage some crossover, though. I bought my Abstract Algebra textbook online and it turned out to be a version from China! Luckily though, except for the cover, everything was in English.
If I weren't in math, I would absolutely be somewhere in in the STEM field. If I had to pick some completely different major, though, I could see choosing Religion. Similarly to math, it's all about people around the world approach some of the most difficult, ancient and important questions we face.
My favorite moment was in high school. One day I was doing something related to trigonometry and I realized that, not only was I good at math, I was actually really enjoying myself.
Last summer I did the RIPS program at at the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics in LA. It was a really fantastic summer (if you're interested in math, absolutely apply!). In general, though, research can be an incredibly empowering experience. At the end, you and your researcher partners understand a particular problem better than perhaps anyone else in the world. It's great to get to explain something to your professors, instead of always listening to them explaining things to you.
I'm still figuring out my future plans, but rest assured, it will certainly involve math.
[On concentrating in Mathematics] DOOOOO ITTTT! But seriously, studying math is a lot of fun. In general, study what you're interested in and don't hold yourself to any other requirements - not what other people think you should do, not even what you were planning on doing 6 months ago. If you're really in love with a subject, you'll find a way to make it work.”
Junior, Winthrop House, Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology, Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology
“Stem cells have so much untapped potential for regeneration and restoration of the human body when it comes to disease. A lot has been discovered about them in recent years but different stem cell therapies have yet to be perfected. What makes studying HDRB and working in a SCRB so cool is that you get to see first hand for how these cells can help treat or cure diseases.
SCRB 167 was one of my favorite classes at Harvard thus far. Each week we got to read papers on different diseases and see how different stem cell therapies could be used to treat the disease. Because the class was held at the medical school, we also had the opportunity for different patients with diseases from that week’s topic come in and share their experience with the disease and the various treatments that they’ve endured.
If I were to choose something outside of science, it would probably be Romance Languages. It would be wonderful to reach a level of fluency or proficiency in many languages and be able to communicate with other people in different languages and read various texts.
I currently work in a lab that studies hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) in zebrafish and I’ve spent a lot of time growing niche cells for zebrafish HSCs. Consequently I’ve been doing lots of zebrafish kidney dissections and transplants of cells via intraperitoneal injections. Research has definitely been a learning and growing process for me but has really come to be something that I’ve enjoyed and it’s exciting to see your hard work pay off (or not) and tackle the next challenge. I also plan on going to medical school so most things I study in science at Harvard will contribute to my general knowledge as I enter medical school.
My advice is to definitely get involved in a lab early! So many of the things you learn as an HDRB concentrator become so much more applicable as soon as you start working in a lab!”
Senior, Leverett House, Chemistry, Physics, & Biology (CPB)
“This is super cliché, but I love that you can understand a single object or system in so many different ways on so many scales of time and space – I love that you can take a complicated biological entity like an organism and break it down into tissues, cells, molecules, then untangle molecular function, then the kinetics and thermodynamics of why all those processes happen at certain times and rates, feedback loops and how everything coordinates... And then to zoom back out and see the coordinated activity of that individual, the ecological impact of its species, the evolutionary pressures that created it, the scales in time over which that process occurred. To know that something as exquisitely complex as a cell functions entirely through the elegantly simple laws of physics is truly nuts. It’s overwhelming.
I loved: Chem 20, 30 and 40, SCRB 157, Chem 170, SystBio 204. I did not love: Chem 27, MCB 52.
I’ve taken three computer science classes, so not quite enough for a secondary, but I find that programming is hugely important and helpful in the natural sciences and conducting my own research. I think programming and statistics should be a larger part of all science education since they’re so incredibly useful for how you think about the world.
[On her favorite CPB moment] When I walked out of the Chem 20 final. Or a couple moments when I’ve understood something in lab for the first time and made the connection on my own – even if that realization was that my experiment wouldn’t work, it’s gratifying to notice yourself understanding more and more. Designing experiments by myself for the first time (even though they generally failed.) Of course when things work that’s also great but so far the feeling of growing more independent and getting better at research is the most rewarding thing.
I’ve worked in labs since freshman year, in Jack Szostak’s lab from freshman through junior year and now in George Church’s lab for my senior thesis. The research I did in Jack’s lab was spectacularly interesting, probing the origins of life itself, applying the principles of evolution to nucleic acids in order to engineer catalytic molecules – very exciting to walk the line between chemistry and biology that way. I learned a lot of chemistry and a lot of what it means to be a scientist (which, for the most part, is dealing with failure) but I realized around the end of junior year that if I am going to seriously pursue science as a career, it would be nice to have experienced more than one lab environment. The Church lab is also doing some very interesting things, and I found my interests were evolving toward exploring existing biological systems, which I do now, in particular the biology of extracellular vesicles and their RNA. Conducting scientific research has been my main extracurricular activity all throughout Harvard and at this point in time, I plan to do it after Harvard as well – it has been frustrating, exhilarating, enormously challenging, hugely educational and absurdly fun. I would recommend it to anyone.
Right now the plan is to work in a lab for a year after I graduate and then apply to PhD programs in chemical biology, so I imagine I’ll use a lot of what I’ve studied!
[On advice] Do research! Start as early as you can and spend as much time on it as you can. That’s where you really learn how and why science is done. In college you spend a lot of time catching up on foundational knowledge in your field without having sustained access to the real mysteries that drive people to do this their whole lives, and research is a way to get a glimpse of that. Take classes you’re curious about and try to push yourself – there are lots of rewards to taking the more rigorous classes! You will learn more and surround yourself with people who care more, both staff and students. Work hard but don’t stress about grades. Above all, notice when you’re full of curiosity and enthusiasm for something and actively pursue that feeling. Einstein has a great quote where he says "We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about." It’s not always easy but as far as I can tell that’s what it’s all about.”
Junior, Winthrop House, Earth and Planetary Sciences & Physics
“[On great and not so great classes] I’ve really liked EPS 109 – Earth, Resources and the Environment – and Applied Math 105 – Differential Equations. The latter was very applicable in a lot of fields. While Physics 143a – Quantum Mechanics – was definitely the most challenging class I’ve ever taken.
EPS is a very multidisciplinary science field that uses a lot of Physics, and the area that I’m most interested in within the EPS domain is its intersection with Physics.
If I were to pick another concentration, I’d choose Applied Math, probably. It’s connected to a lot of what I study; and I think it’s an extremely useful field, especially regarding mathematical modeling.
[On her coolest EPS experience] A particularly cool moment was when we visited and active drilling site in EPS109 – being able to see something that we’d studied all year made our experience more real, more worthwhile.
I’m considering going to grad school to continue studying EPS; I’ve also always been interested in politics, and I know that if I ever work in government, my science background will serve me well.
Both of my fields require substantial effort, but if you invest your time in them they can be really interesting and rewarding. My advice would be to decide which subject you’re most interested in, most passionate about as early on as possible, and devote yourself to mastering that.”
President Obama, in February 2013, reflected in one of his speeches, “One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.” The work and experiences of these Harvard scientists, concentrating in fields that range from Earth and Planetary Sciences to Mathematics to Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology, should be encouraging to aspiring Scientistas across the country.
These Harvard girls do amazing and interesting work within their fields; they prove not only that the future of women in STEM looks bright, but also that the future of innovation in STEM is more promising than ever before.
Imagine having a universal tool to fix any broken part in your house, regardless of how different each part was or how specific the tool would have to be in order to fit what was needed. Now imagine that the house comes with the tool while it’s being constructed, but even when it’s finished, the tool works as a multipurpose fixer in any of its rooms. If your body’s the house, then stem cells are essentially these universal tools that hold the answer to curing many different health conditions by the process of specialization of these cells in order to cater to multiple parts of the body.
Human stem cells, though unspecialized, have the ability to develop into various cells in the body to serve specific functions, and then can go on to divide so as to replenish these cells. Stem cell research allows for a better understanding of human development and how undifferentiated stem cells become specialized cells. It is also possible to gain insight as to how diseases develop and how they can be treated by examining the different aspects of these complicated cells. Stem cells can also offer more information on the efficacy and behaviors of new drugs. More than 70 major diseases and medical conditions that affect millions of people, such as cancer, diabetes, ALS, HIV, AIDS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and many more could potentially be treated or cured through stem cell research. The many potential benefits of encouraging stem cell development and research at first astounded me, but then inspired me to pursue my own interests involving stem cell research.
However it was for more than this reason that I felt somewhat awed and impressed when I heard the recent announcement by Harvard stem cell researchers. The news that the scientists were able to produce massive quantities of human insulin-producing beta cells using human embryonic stem cells signaled a new stage in groundbreaking developments for both diabetes and stem cells. This incredible scientific advance may lead to an effective treatment for Type 1 Diabetes. It was hearing news of this potential breakthrough during my Visitas that convinced me that Harvard was the place for me. If such an astounding development could be made using stem cells, I wanted to be a part of it and follow in the footsteps of the researchers and scientists that made it possible.
I was only nine-years-old when I learned what about stem cells were and how they might yield substantial medical benefits. In my case, these benefits could better the life of a family friend with ALS. To me, it seemed something out of an old sci-fi movie and I imagined it a tool that could morph into whatever shape or function in order to fit the task at hand. I wasn’t exactly far off, seeing as stem cells stand to differentiate into a targeted function that may lead to cures and treatments for people who previously had a faced bleak outlook on their conditions. Hearing that Harvard stood on the brink of pushing stem cell research into a new area that was previously unexplored made me feel more ambitious and driven considering the various ways that I could be a part of such a project that could potentially save or better the lives of others. It was inspiring hearing how those before me devoted so much to their stem cell research and I knew I needed to be there to witness their progress and to help them in any way that I could.
Harvard holds many opportunities for those looking into scientific research. The Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology offers undergraduates the opportunity to join one of 17 to 20 labs and pursue independent research projects in many areas of interest related to stem cells. The hands-on work offers students more, and better quality, experiences and immensely influences their studies. Having Harvard either provide or assist in gaining the funding for a research project alone is a promising attribute that makes the undergraduate experience at Harvard so appealing. The ease with which undergraduates can discuss research topics with faculty encourages students to go on to develop their own research projects and pursue their interests within the life sciences with the aid of influential mentors.
For those interested in pursuing a concentration involving stem cell research, development, and/or engineering, Harvard offers multiple tracks. While I’m concentrating in Biomedical engineering, I applaud how Harvard’s Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology concentration allows for research as a basis for education. Becoming aware of the multitude of research opportunities available along with the range of courses that offer a comprehensive understanding of human biology convinced me that my ambitions as a biomedical engineer and my interest in research would be best-suited at Harvard. The Bachelor of Arts in biomedical engineering option for my concentration is geared towards preparing students for doing research in labs or attending medical school, while a bachelor of sciences will allow for accreditation as an engineer. However, a number of concentration options offer undergraduates the opportunity to benefit from connections with Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute.
Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute has allowed for a network of stem cell scientists between Harvard and affiliated hospitals and the biomedical industry. In creating such a source of academic support, Harvard encourages the participation of undergraduates in groundbreaking research. Harvard has the largest concentration of biomedical researchers in the world within its community as a result. With stem cell scientists that work with various collaborating departments, Harvard researchers are able to make great strides in the field of stem cell engineering.
The importance of stem cell research along with the multitude of opportunities to pursue the venture make Harvard a stronger community for those interested. With passionate faculty and access to labs and funding, undergraduates are surrounded by ambition and possibilities that influence later research projects. Stem cells may lead to the cure and treatment to such different diseases and medical conditions that prospects are endless. Starting out as a freshman at Harvard, I feel like an unspecialized stem cell being developed to solve whatever problem comes my way.
by Natalie Janzow
The evening of December 6, the Harvard branch of Scientistas hosted a panel on female academics in the sciences. Undergraduate scientists braved miserable weather to listen to Professors Hopi Hoekstra, Pamela Silver, Emily Balskus, and Dr. Patricia Musolino speak about their experiences as women pursuing degrees and careers in their respective fields. Specialists in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Biochemistry and Systems Biology, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Pediatric Neurology, the four women described their experiences in the sciences, responding to questions posed by moderator and Senior neurobiology concentrator Catherine Schmalkuche. In telling their stories and sharing opinions, they offered insights and advice invaluable to other women who hope to one day pursue their own careers in science.
On the imbalance between the number of women and men in their various departments, each professor expressed a similar sentiment; that recently, the imbalance has become less pronounced than ever before, but that we still have a long way to go before achieving real equality. When questioned about the severity of the imbalance especially in leadership positions within the sciences, Professor Silver specifically remarked, “transition to leadership roles is next to impossible,” and implied that in her own experiences, in order to be offered any kind of higher-level position, a woman would have to threaten to leave her department. She did, however, agree with her colleagues that recent changes are designed to expand the number of prominent women scientists at the heads of their fields. Addressing her audience of undergraduate women and aspiring scientists, she announced, “Change falls on you.”
When asked about psychological findings related to the different mentalities and perceptions of women in scientific fields, all four professors were quick to offer their opinions on the disparities between the styles and thought-processes of the different genders within male-dominated workplaces. Interestingly, each mentioned that women tend to feel guiltier and put more pressure on themselves to succeed than men. Professor Silver described how, when she received her first major position as an academic, she was “so grateful to get anything,” that she didn’t necessarily consider if it might be best for her. She mentioned that she works with female graduate students now who feel guilty when prominent departments reach out to them in part because they are women. She advised her audience, just as she advised her grad students, to use whatever they might have access to, and when offered a great opportunity, to just take it, and certainly not to feel bad about its motivation. Dr. Musolino explained that she thought it was a mistake for women to contend with the men in their fields by adopting their mentalities, which she characterized as often intensely competitive. She does, however, believe that women can successfully negotiate for their own improvement by imitating brokering tactics often implemented by men. She believes that men have a high sense of justice; and that just as men believe that they deserve to be rewarded for their own hard work, so too should their female colleagues.
Professor Balskus observed that “women don’t ask” – about potential advisors, about possible future positions, or about how to be rewarded for doing great work in their field. She stresses the necessity that women familiarize themselves with prospective positions, awards, and opportunities in their fields in order to better advocate for themselves. Professor Hoekstra expanded upon her idea by discussing awards; she mentioned that the vast majority of accolades in the sciences are presented more often to men than to women, and she suspected that this was in part because women were less inclined to ask their superiors and mentors for nominations. She, too, stressed that in order to be successful, women must be comfortable speaking up for themselves.
In discussing the importance of mentors in the development of thriving careers, the panelists described how they themselves achieved success. Professor Hoekstra emphasized that it’s ideal to find a mentor who not only conveys important information about one’s department and field, but who will also passionately advocate for his or her mentee. She also expressed her belief that mentor/mentee relationships strengthen the sense of community among scientists, and can be majorly advantageous to aspiring students and researchers. Doctor Musolino expressed her belief in the importance of learning from other women and also in the importance of developing multiple mentoring relationships. She described that in her own experience, it was easy to find people who would talk to her, but harder to find those who would take responsibility for the advancement of her career. She thus believed it invaluable to build a support group of mentors who “can keep opening doors” within one’s field. Professor Silver emphasized the individuality of the scientific process, reflecting that as scientists, “we dream, we think about things on our own.” When she did need advice or inspiration, she found that it was often more helpful to confide in peers than in superiors about her research and ideas. And while Professor Balskus agreed that it’s essential to “listen to [one’s] own scientific voice,” it’s also possible to find fantastic mentors in interesting and unexpected places.
The panel concluded by discussing the complicated contemporary issue regarding the ability of women to “have it all” – to achieve success and happiness in both the personal and professional realms of their lives. Professor Musolino alluded to the idea that women often develop a plan that conforms to an expected school-work-family trajectory. She described how her own plan was to attend and graduate from medical school and have four kids before she turned thirty; this, she said, proved extremely unrealistic. She mentioned that when she felt her own professional aspirations shifting to accommodate her family-oriented intentions, she decided to alter her plan, to focus on her work, and not to modify her professional ambitions because of the pressure she felt about her personal ones. Professor Hoekstra expressed her own supporting opinion that professional success is not determined by specific, constrictive personal-life timing. She said that life was hard to plan for, and that women shouldn’t worry about not conforming to typical personal-life timelines, that they should start building families only when they were ready to. Professor Silver expressed her belief that with shifting expectations of and the development of better support systems for working women with families, it’s slowly becoming easier and easier for women to thrive in both their personal and professional lives.
Doctor Musolino, at the close of the panel’s discussion, told her audience, “Don’t try to be ordinary when you’re not.” Her sentiment embodies what the four extraordinary women epitomize in their own lives; their advice, rooted in their own remarkable experiences and insights, will certainly prove indispensible to aspiring scientists striving to follow their example.
Final ScientisTalk of the Semester!
When: 4/25, 6-70pm
Where: Lowell Small Dining Hall
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