Juliet Snyder '15
As fall semester comes to a close, many Juniors have to confront this question – should I do a thesis? For students in STEM, deciding to do a thesis can seem like a long and confusing process. Every mentor has their own idea about how useful or necessary a thesis is and almost no one agrees. However, most can agree on one thing. Do not do a thesis because you think that a thesis is what you are “supposed to do” or because you want to add it to your resume.
Here are great reasons to write a thesis.
1) A thesis allows you the unique opportunity to deeply delve into a project during your undergraduate career and experience the scientific process within a small microcosm. From creating a project idea to carrying out the research to writing out a paper, writing a thesis is a small glimpse into the academic process.
2) If you are considering doing a PhD or MD/PhD, a thesis is a great way to see if research is for you and it’s a good subject to talk about during interviews.
3) It is a wonderful way to create a strong relationship with a faculty mentor who can offer professional advice, write letters of recommendation and provide insight into the world of STEM.
4) Writing a thesis helps you develop invaluable skills that can aid you in whatever career path you choose – whether it is just perseverance and diligence or it is a specific scientific technique.
So the decision to write a thesis means you have to ask yourself some question: will the satisfaction that I get from writing my thesis alone be worth the time, stress, and worry? Will writing a thesis help inform me about what career or academic path I want to pursue after college? If the answer is no, then there may be better ways to spend your junior and senior year. If the answer is yes, then continue reading!
So what do you do now?
1) Find a lab
If you haven’t already found a lab, now is the time to do so. Winter break is a great time to meet with professors and PIs. Your academic advisor can also be in invaluable resource when it comes to finding PIs to contact. Be upfront with the labs you are interested in and tell them you want to do research in their lab for your thesis – often that will inform their decision and ensure that you have a better experience. It is important to find a lab with a topic you are interested in but the most important factor is finding a good mentor. A good mentor can dramatically improve your thesis experience. You should be in a lab by the spring semester of your Junior year.
2) Junior Thesis proposal
Most are due around the end of Junior year, so get started thinking now about what topic you want to explore. Your PI or mentor within your lab can be incredibly useful in this process. How much autonomy you have in your project is very much dependent on the lab that you join, so consider how much autonomy you want when going through the lab selection process.
3) Enroll in a research course
Most concentrations have the option to count research as a class for two semesters. If you need a fifth class or want more time to pursue research during the fall of your senior year, consider asking your concentration advisor about this option. It can help free up additional time for research and allow you to dive more in depth into your topic.
4) Research and Write!
Now you have started on your path to research! More on the thesis writing process will come in later articles, but right now the hardest step is making that decision to write the thesis.
Good luck with your decision!
By Juliet Snyder, '15
Growing up, my friends and family modeled themselves after the characters they saw on television—from my brother at the age of seven desperately wanting to be a Power Ranger to my girl friends at the age of fourteen wanting to be Desperate Housewives.
The depiction of females on television has an important impact on who young girls later aspire to be. There are four female scientists on television that lend amusement to the college Scientista (in between problem sets of course) and are good role models for those middle school Scientettes as well.
Dr. Temperance Brennan – Bones
Dr. Temperance Brennan, or “Bones,” is a forensic anthropologist based off the character created by Kathy Reichs. Interestingly, Reichs is a forensic anthropologist herself.
Using science, Bones solves seemingly impossible cases with the FBI. The show is incredibly engaging and involves many other great characters--Angela Montenegro (a forensic artist), Dr. Jack Hodgins (an entomologist) and Dr. Camille Saroyan (the head of the Forensic Division at the Jeffersonian Institute and a pathologist). Each character has different strengths and displays different facets of science.
Bones shows some of the eccentricities typically associated with female scientists, such as lacking understanding of certain social graces.
Abigail "Abby" Sciuto – NCIS
Abby is the forensic specialist in NCIS. Hilarious, witty, quirky and Goth, Abby is not only incredibly smart but also full of character. Her skills and knowledge are crucial for solving crimes and investigating the deaths of naval officers.
Although many would point out that Abby’s long pigtails and black platform Doc Martins are not exactly lab protocols, her charm makes up for the lack of realism.
Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz and Amy Farrah Fowler – The Big Bang Theory
Bernadette and Amy are both PhD scientists in The Big Bang Theory – Bernadette with a PhD in microbiology and Amy with a PhD in neuroscience.
The show is hilarious, although the hilarity comes in no small part from the stereotypes of the scientists portrayed. Nonetheless, the Scientistas are hilarious and are great additions to a previously male-dominated scientist cast. In addition, Mayim Bialik, the actress who portrays Amy Farrah Fowler, has a doctorate in neuroscience.
While television producers still seem fascinated with the stereotype of the geeky and socially awkward female scientist, their female scientist characters also portray intelligence and great characteristics that are true of real female scientists.
I found inspiration in Bones’ ability to see both the finite details and bigger picture while solving crimes, and in Abby’s drive and desire to stay true to her style and personality. So for young and “old” Scientistas alike, during those free moments of “vegging” on the couch, feel free to switch on these shows and enjoy.
Who is yourfavorite fictional Scientista? Leave a comment!
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By Juliet Snyder, '15
The deadlines have snuck up on you and have run away for each and every research program you thought you were so smart to bookmark last November. We have all been there – finals and midterms and papers come up. Or perhaps, none of the programs you applied for accepted you. Now what do you do?
The truth is, opportunity has in no way passed you by. While applications and set programs provide structure and welcomed support to the harried college student, there are many other options for Scientistas over the summer.
Research Assistant at a Local University
Although it takes more work and the carefully formatted email, contacting researchers at your local university can be a great option for the summer. Start by looking at the department websites at the local university for researchers who are working on topics you are interested in.
Pick about eight to contact and write them an email. Look out for an article on how to write the perfect research interest email! (Unfortunately, it is a little too long for this article) Tell them of your interest and say you would love to have a conversation with them, offering to talk via Skype or phone.
Volunteer at a Hospital or Aquarium
While this typically involves more dealing with people than zebra fish, volunteering at a hospital or aquarium in your area can give you valuable volunteer experience and people skills. Most hospital and aquarium websites have sections detailing their volunteer opportunities. So simply click away.
Work as an Intern for the Scientista Foundation!
The Scientista Foundation is always looking for a few good women (and men!) to contribute to our team through Business/Fundraising, Web, Social media/marketing, Graphic Design, Writing or Editing. Look under the “Join” tab on scientistafoundation.com for more information.
Volunteer or intern abroad
There are many volunteer programs that offer internships and volunteer opportunities abroad for those seeking medical or research experience. Among those is the organization ProWorld. Although, be aware that many of these groups do require you to pay to cover expenses.
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Dr. Mai Anh Huynh, MD/PhDDr. Mai Anh Huynh, MD/PhD
By Emily Groopman, '14
Though born and raised in Evansville, Indiana, Dr. Mai Anh Huynh is no stranger to Cambridge – whether the American or English version. As an undergraduate at Harvard, she conducted summer research in structural biology at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (Cambridge, UK). After completing an A.B. in Biochemical Sciences, she entered Harvard Medical School’s Health Sciences and Technology Program, and graduated as physician-scientist in 2012, with a PhD in Neurobiology. Currently in her residency in radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Huynh also serves as a Resident Pre-Medical Tutor at Harvard’s Kirkland House. Below, she discusses her choice of an MD/PhD, her experiences while pursuing her dual degree, and her goals for the future.
1. What drew you to pursue an MD/PhD specifically (vs. solely an MD or a PhD)? When did you decide an MD/PhD was right for you?
I have been interested in medicine for as long as I can remember. I always loved science and engaging with other people and to me medicine seemed to be the career I would find both intellectually and personally satisfying. I had not considered the MD/PhD as an option until college. I very much enjoyed my research experiences as an undergrad, in particular my experience in Venki Ramakrishnan's lab in the UK. The opportunity gave me a flavor of what it would mean to pursue research as a career and also showed me the impact one could make on human health through scientific discovery. I felt the combined degree would train me to be both a better physician and a better scientist and hopefully provide a skill set that would allow me to make connections between both worlds.
2. What has been the most challenging aspect of the MD/PhD process? The most rewarding?
The transitions are the toughest part. The mentality and culture of the lab and in the wards are quite different. Inevitably, you will feel rusty either clinically or scientifically as you become more immersed in the different training phases of the program. Transitioning from med school to the uncertainty of the lab as you settle into the PhD is often challenging as the metrics for measuring productivity or personal success can be few and far between. It is hard to watch your classmates move on and graduate without feeling a little left behind. Conversely, the freedom and sense of comfort you develop in lab is hard to leave when returning to the wards, where much of the first two years of med school are a distant memory. Each phase has its own rewards. For me, the human interactions you get through medicine are very motivating and there is a more direct sense of feedback regarding the impact you make on other people's lives. In the lab, the reward is in the process of discovery and the unique satisfaction you might feel in figuring out a process or phenomena that no one else has seen before. Ideally, that discovery will have a larger clinical impact, but on a day-to-day basis, it's easier to measure success in smaller increments and through the excitement of gathering new data.
3. Discuss your choice of research field: what motivated your choice of the field specifically? How did you find your lab?
My research was in neurobiology looking at the transcriptional regulation axon growth and neuronal development with Azad Bonni. Neurobiology is an attractive combination of molecular biology with a frontier of medicine that we still know very little about. The topic was interesting enough to keep me motivated throughout my PhD. I was fortunate to find my mentor through talking with other students who had rotated in his lab. I picked the lab because I felt it would be a good training experience for me and was lucky enough to have a great training experience with a very supportive mentor.
4. What do you like most research? About medicine? How do you see yourself balancing the two as you advance in your career as a physician-scientist?
In research, I like the autonomy and sense of discovery. In medicine, I like making connections with patients and feeling that I am doing my best to take the best care of them as possible. I hope one day to combine the two by pursuing research and a clinical practice that will complement each other. I expect this will be easier for me to envision once I get through residency training and much will also depend on what opportunities arise. My goal is to become an academic radiation oncologist, and I do hope to have time to spend both in the clinic and in the lab in the future.
By Nia Walker, '16
I returned home to New York for spring break and was able to enjoy a change of scenery. That entailed a slower pace from the usual workings of a college environment: sleeping without an alarm clock, reading a classic for leisure rather than for a daunting paper that would count for thirty percent of my final grade, and yes, watching a real life Cinderella tale unfold before my very eyes in the form of a Harvard men’s basketball victory over the highly favored New Mexico team.
After coming back to campus and exchanging spring break stories with my friends, I noticed certain similarities—sleeping in and catching up with old friends for example—and then of course there were differences—the thing each person missed most about spring break and the specific aspects of their spring break that generated the most excitement out of them.
Spring break for me was a reflection, a time to reflect on college and what I would like my time to be after or away from it, and an actual reflection of the different sides of myself. My spring break, my friends’ spring breaks, and your spring break all have this one idea in common, if nothing else.
Reflection, whether conscious or unconscious and wanted or unwanted, unites all great and young thinkers. And it isn’t limited to epiphanic experiences away from school; a great deal of reflection occurs through the extracurriculars we choose to involve ourselves in. Much like your spring break, extracurriculars are not only for stepping away from coursework; they also supplement your academic experience.
So why do your parents and advisors encourage extracurriculars? Why do employers like to see extracurriculars on a resume? And what is it about extracurriculars that make them such a popular topic of discussion among friends and classmates?
Extracurriculars provide a window into your hopes and dreams, interests, and well, just you in general. Sure, they allow you to gain more experience in your chosen field. And yes, they do help you meet new people and make great networking connections. Going beyond that, extracurriculars play a big part in preserving your sanity. They give you the opportunity to learn something new about and express yourself. They also represent uniqueness; most schools offer a wide range of extracurricular activities to support a diverse student body. Extracurriculars showcase your differences and help develop a clearer sense of individuality.
A lot of soul searching and career considerations occur outside the classroom. That makes extracurriculars as important, if not more, as academics. The take away point is that extracurriculars should be taken seriously. The more effort you put into your extracurriculars, the more you will benefit. Many of us accept that extracurriculars are important; it is understanding why they are important to you that will help you get the most out of them and your entire school experience.
Shaira Bhanji at the Taj Mahal during her I-SURF Internship.
By Leah Gaffney, '15
Studying abroad can provide not only an immersive cultural experience, but also the chance to explore your passions in a world outside of Harvard. It can be challenging to find the perfect opportunity, especially as a science concentrator. This article compiles a number of opportunities and suggestions and reports on several students’ experiences.
Firstly, the Harvard Summer School offers six science programs in Japan, China, the Dominican Republic, England, and Italy. These programs are run by Harvard professors and have Harvard course numbers good for Harvard credit.
Students have reported these experiences to be incredibly worthwhile.
Annie Garofalo ‘15, a psychology concentrator in Currier House, went to Trento, Italy last summer with Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Behavior program.
She liked how it made her feel more connected to her concentration at Harvard. “It was pretty specific to neurobiology. I got to meet a ton of people with similar interests, and as a sophomore I met a few juniors who gave me some great advice.”
Christopher White ‘15, a biomedical engineering concentrator in Quincy House, participated in professor Rob Lue’s life sciences program in Shanghai.
Chris made lasting relationships with Harvard faculty and Harvard and foreign students. “It was beneficial because I connected with Harvard professors who continue to influence my studies. I also learned a lot from the local students who had different perspectives on learning. It was a unique classroom environment that I would never have experienced here at Harvard.”
There are a few other popular programs including Andrew Berry’s evolutionary biology courses at Oxford University.
But suppose the Harvard Summer School offerings don’t cover your chosen science? Some departments and schools at Harvard offer separate abroad opportunities to undergraduates.
The Harvard Global Health Institute runs the International Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program (I-SURF). They offer global health internships in a number of African, Asian, and South American countries. Shaira Bhanji, ’14 discovered India last summer while conducting maternal and child health research for eight weeks. “The experience was one I’ll never forget. The research was meaningful, the people were wonderful, and the travel experience was extraordinary.”
The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) is also working on providing more abroad opportunities. Beginning this summer, SEAS is co-administering “Medical Innovations for Low-resource Global Markets” with the Harvard South Asia Institute. This international experience in India focuses on developing new medical technologies.
Harvard offers great opportunities that have made meaningful summers for many students. However, there aren’t programs to exactly match everyone’s unique interests. Some students look outside of Harvard for abroad opportunities.
Harvard students are planning to attend the University of Cantabria (UC) this summer for their new summer programs in research in biotechnology and ocean & coastal engineering. Cornell University has an established abroad experience with UC, and the university is well known for its research. The summer programs offer coursework and involvement in a research project with university faculty.
There are seemingly unlimited opportunities abroad. Finding your own program outside of Harvard takes a little extra work, but could be worth it to find the perfect summer experience. Prepared programs are not necessarily tailored to your individual experience, and opportunities are not limited to those that are formed into comprehensive programs.
Tasha Evanoff ‘15, neurobiology concentrator of Dunster House, is creating her own experience this summer. She’s going to be studying muscular skeletal disorder and obesity with researchers in Paris. She’s excited for her unconventional summer: “It might be more challenging that going with a program, but that’s what makes it especially rewarding. IT’s the ultimate independence.”
By Shaira Bhanji. 14
Author's Note: All of the below stories were submitted in confidence, so no names are attached.
See the accompanying feature in The Harvard Crimson here.
The stories below are from scientistas who have had experiences dealing with science in which their gender felt like a hindrance. The point of sharing these stories is not to gather pity, but rather to help raise awareness; discrimination in science still does exist. It's real, and many times, the stories are unbelievably disturbing. The Scientista Foundation is still working to combat gender discrimination in the sciences--one scientista at a time. Keep reading to see what motivates us to continue doing what we do.
Our new post-doc was young, blond and pretty. She was also a brilliant scientist. She worked in the room next to me, but would often stop in to chat with me about my project and life. One day she told me about her previous job where she had faced sexual harassment by her former PI. “I almost did not report it because I was afraid of the backlash that might result. My PI and another lab member treated me terribly after, but I am glad that I spoke out.”
After she left the room, I saw two young male post-docs in my room roll their eyes. “She is such a drama queen. She wasn't harassed. She just can’t take a joke,” one said. “She only got hired because of her boobs anyway. Everyone knows he [the PI] only hires hot women,” said the other before breaking into hysterical laughter.
It was the first time I encountered subtle gender discrimination in science, but I will never forget it. Soon after, my own post-doc, also a female, quit after an argument over who was getting credit for her work. After weeks of watching her come into work with red eyes, she finally informed me that she was leaving for another lab. Before she left she told me, “Sometimes you just have to let go and realize when you can’t take it anymore.”
When I was a freshman in college, I knew I wanted to concentrate in the sciences but I didn’t know what specific field. In high school, science was simple – chemistry, physics, and biology. Now, I was suddenly confronted with such options as Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Human Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology, Earth and Planetary Sciences, etc.
My college held a fair for the freshman to talk to different advisors about each major. As a freshman, I had yet to take a class in one of the fields, but I was very interested in the subject, so I went to talk to one of the advisors. I explained to her my interests and goals and why I was interested in her major. She looked me over and then got this cramped look on her face before telling me, “Perhaps you would do better to look at some of the softer sciences, like Psychology.”
Despite feeling like an arrow had been shot through my chest, I thanked her for her time and quickly turned away. I was stunned and hurt. Not only had she insulted another field for no reason (I think Psychology is a great major), but she had also insulted my intelligence without even knowing me for five minutes. I hadn’t said anything or acted idiotic. And yet, from a two-minute conversation, she had decided that I was not smart enough for her major.
I was hurt, but I came to realize I must have thicker skin. I also realized that sometimes, a sad fact in the sciences is that one of the biggest barriers to the advancement of women aren’t men or history but rather other women. We attack each other and pick on each other simply because we are consumed by the idea that if another female does well it means less opportunities for us.
I am now officially majoring in that field that I was so harshly pushed away from (I am purposefully refraining from remarking on the major because I don’t want it to reflect badly on the advisor). I have learned to have a thicker skin about the things scared people say, and I have learned to stop the cycle by encouraging those around me who are in the sciences. Trust me, there is enough out there in the world to research and investigate that if one person does well it isn’t going to leave less for everyone else to discover.
And while I have had negative experiences like this—from advisors telling me I wasn’t doing enough research as a freshman to girls in sciences classes laughing in my face when I asked for help—nothing compares to the passion I feel for science and to the incredible opportunities I have had. So the next time someone tells you to look into a ‘softer science’, just smile and laugh it off–you know yourself better than they do.
It was another day in my upper-level, male-dominated math class. As usual, I walked in and sat down in the front row. Male after male filled up the seats around me, with another girl sitting down on occasion. I looked around and took out my notebook as the female instructor began her lecture for the day, thinking, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m sitting in the front row.”
Later that evening, it was time to do problem sets. I didn’t know many people in the class, so I found someone to check problem sets with. It wasn’t the best arrangement. I could tell he had an air of arrogance, but he was nice when he needed to check homework.
One night, as we were checking our homework, we came across a problem I had done incorrectly. Sitting across from me he said, smirking but flirtatious, “Looks like I’ll have to help you brush up some of your math skills.” A few problems later, it was his turn to be wrong. The daring part of me called him out on it. But he brushed it off as being a hard problem. Needless to say, after the course and our problem sets ended, he stopped talking to me altogether.
[Edit: The word 'girl' was replaced with 'scientista' to reflect the varied age group. -- 5/30/13]
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12/22/2012 0 Comments
The attendees with Dr. Sujata Bhatia (fourth from left) and Dr. Carolann Koleci (fifth from left).
By Leah Gaffney '15
Last month, members of the Harvard College community—including several Scientistas—enjoyed an event put on by Harvard University Women in Business and the Harvard Chapter of the Scientista Foundation. “A Beautiful Nexus: Science, Tech, and Business” featured two Harvard faculty members: Dr. Sujata Bhatia, Assistant Director for Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering, and Dr. Carolann Koleci, Instructor for Applied Physics.
The intimate atmosphere set the tone for what was to come. The speakers shared personal stories and anecdotes about their lives as women in science and experiences with business. The real treat was their honesty and openness to share advice for everything from getting a job to day-to-day relationships. Humor, laughter, and questions were in no short supply.
Dr. Bhatia and Dr. Koleci shared their life stories, beginning in childhood and covering everything from the paths of their careers to the important relationships they made along the way.
Dr. Koleci always knew she would be a teacher; as a child her most memorable gift was a double-sided chalkboard that she used to teach her brother and sister what she learned in school. She went on to receive degrees in Physics and Mechanical Engineering, and then created her own PhD program in Physics Education at Brown.
Now, Dr. Koleci is an instructor of the new, innovative Applied Physics 50 course that stresses collaboration and interactive learning. She explained that creating a new course at Harvard is both exciting and difficult at times.
For Dr. Bhatia, growing up, being a girl never meant being different. She and her sisters were raised on equal ground as her brother, and she never felt that doors were shut to her because she was a woman. She studied chemical engineering and then continued on to achieve an MD and PhD in bioengineering.
From there, it was common to do a fellowship and residency or work in industry at Mobil or Exxon. She liked the faster turn-around time in industry, but wasn’t intrigued by the work at Mobil or Exxon, so she worked for Dupont Applied Biosciences.
Dr. Bhatia later worked as a professor of engineering at several universities and a prominent mentor and advisor to students. She spoke about her experiences in both industry and academia and provided some great insight about both worlds. The work environment at Dupont was very supportive and she worked on worthwhile projects, like an omega-3 fatty acid that she got to see to production and on shelves at local GMC stores.
This industry experience made her an especially effective professor. She is currently a mentor to many students at Harvard and finds it rewarding to help students find and pursue their passions.
Both speakers stressed that the pioneering nature and tenacity required in forging your own path is essential in the pursuit of your passions. Their journeys weren’t easy. Despite their impressive degrees, they were often underestimated at first and did not escape traditional female stereotypes. But through and through, they persevered. “There is no fight without struggle,” Dr. Koleci said.
Dr. Bhatia spoke reassuringly, “Everybody doubts themselves sometimes, no matter how successful they are. I’m here to tell you that you’re going to be okay. Just keep working hard and following your passion.”
If not for the time limit, conversation would have continued long into the night. Participants expressed that the open, informal atmosphere was conducive to the the inspiring conversation they needed to have. Thank you to our co-sponsors, HUWIB, Dr. Sujata Bhatia, Dr. Carolann Koleci, and the attendees of the event!
Final ScientisTalk of the Semester!
When: 4/25, 6-70pm
Where: Lowell Small Dining Hall
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