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.
Final ScientisTalk of the Semester!
When: 4/25, 6-70pm
Where: Lowell Small Dining Hall
Subscribe to Our Mailing List
The Network for Pre-Professional Women in Science and Engineering
The Scientista Foundation is a registered 501(c)(3) -- Donate!