Summer of Ideas: Harvard Students Reflect on Summer Research at the Broad Institute

MOLLY ZHAO

Broad Institute
Photo by Kate Kriz, “The location” via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

In the summer of 2012, three Harvard students were among the 14 undergraduates who participated in the Summer Research Program in Genomics (SRPG) at the Broad Institute, where they did work in multiple research areas. Founded less than ten years ago, Broad Institute started out as a Harvard-MIT initiative that sought to bring researchers together from all scientific disciplines, empowering its participants to work in a multi-institutional and interdisciplinary environment. Funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute, SRPG gives underrepresented minority undergraduate students the opportunity to design and carry out experimental investigations on genomic topics of their choosing. Undergraduates must be part of a racial minority group or possess disabilities of some sort in order to be eligible. SRPG students participate in a nine-week paid internship that includes housing and travel expenses, attend seminars with respected professors, and take part in workshops that prepare them for graduate school.

Mohammed A. Toure ‘16, now a sophomore in Cabot House, was the only freshman participant in SRPG in 2012. Toure’s research involved finding complementary small molecules that can interrupt the normal function of a protein called Myc. Myc belongs to a class of proteins called onco-proteins. When their function is disrupted, such proteins can bind abnormally to DNA or to molecules involved in DNA transcription, leading to the proliferation of cancerous cells. Toure and his team members were looking for a small molecule that could inhibit the action of Myc. They tested effects of many different small compounds on Myc using several cell-based assays.

It ignited powerful self-growth, as a person and as an aspiring scientist.” – David Jaramillo, Class of 2015

“Doing this is very challenging for Myc because it doesn’t have very well defined binding pocket…like most transcription factors,” Toure says. The research procedure may have been difficult, but he enjoyed developed strong ties with his mentors and peers, and these bonds have held even after the short nine weeks. “I am still in touch with most of the peers I met and lived with during the program,” he says.

 David Jaramillo ‘15, now a junior in Kirkland House, was another Harvard participant in 2012, and his project used gene-expression profiling to connect the chemical structure of compounds to their biological effects. Jaramillo and his team made gene-expression profiles for more than 22,000 molecules. From these profiles, he noted those that have similar biological effects and grouped them together, so he could ultimately record the relationships between chemical structures and biological effects of gene expression.

To be accepted to SRPG, students indicate their favorite laboratory in a statement of purpose, and they are matched to research positions based on their interests.  SRPG not only gives students the freedom to choose their research topic, it also establishes an environment that encourages heated discussion among mentors and students, during which students become better scientific analysts, speakers, and leaders. Jaramillo says, “SRPG was special because the students, mentors, and directors all become a very close-knit group.  I knew what project my other fellow participants were working on, and I learned a lot from them. We became close friends and helped each other to be better scientists…. The general passion and intellectual fervor is always present and it is contagious.”

 “I would encourage first and second year students interested in the sciences to consider applying,” Toure says, citing the unique opportunity students have to immerse themselves entirely in intensive research and to experience life in a scientific community.

Jaramillo agrees. He says, “It made me realize that I want to be part of such a community for the rest of life.”

Molly Zhao is a Brevia staff writer.  She can be reached at mollyzhao@college.harvard.edu.