For years, undergraduate students from across the country have come to Harvard for the summer to work in research labs across the University. This summer, for the first time, 17 of these research programs, have been brought under the umbrella of the Office of the Provost. Kimeya Ghaderi (from left) is being supervised by Susan Mango, a professor of molecular and cellular biology.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Learning in the labs

4 min read

Summer programs give students grounding in academic research

In one of her undergraduate courses last semester at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Kimeya Ghaderi learned about confocal microscopes. But the closest she had gotten to one was a picture in her textbook, until she came to Harvard for a summer research program. Now, she regularly uses the high-tech device in her work for the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

“When I went to get trained on it, I was thinking about how I just learned about confocal microscopes,” she said. “Now I’m using one. It’s amazing. All the stuff you read about in textbooks, you do it here.”

Ghaderi is one of more than 300 undergraduates from across the country who have come to Harvard this summer to pursue research opportunities. Long a mecca for students seeking such experiences, the University’s various research programs existed independently until this year. Now, they’re working in tandem with the Office of the Provost, offering on-campus housing and hosting common activities to better meet the needs of the students.

“We’re ensuring they have a much more inclusive community of scholars,” said Liza Cariaga-Lo, assistant provost for faculty development and diversity.

Cariaga-Lo works with 17 undergraduate research programs from nearly every School in the University and hopes to partner with more programs in the future. The goal, she said, is to create a pipeline of well-qualified students, many from underrepresented communities, who are interested in earning doctorates.

“We want to develop promising scholars who will diversify the academy,” she said. “Our hope is to work more collaboratively across the University to more broadly provide resources to students.”

Diversifying the faculty is a University priority. In recent years, Harvard has made progress toward increasing the number of women and minority members, with those figures coming to a new high last year. Nearly half of the new faculty members hired during the past six years were women, according to the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity. The number of female faculty members grew by 16 percent during that time, while minority members on the faculty grew by 23 percent.

Part of the challenge is that students from underrepresented communities have historically not gone into research fields. Since today’s students are tomorrow’s faculty, engaging a diverse body of students early is key.

“If you can find them early and support and sustain them, you have a greater likelihood that they’ll stick with it,” Cariaga-Lo said.

Susan Mango, a professor of molecular and cellular biology who is supervising Ghaderi this summer, said she still remembers how influential her first research experiences were.

“Without them I would have had a warped perception of what lab life was about,” she said. “For anyone thinking about grad school, I think it’s enormously helpful to be in a lab and get a feel for what you’re signing up for.”

Undergraduate research opportunities can be limited for students who attend smaller institutions that don’t have as many resources; hence Harvard’s programs have become incredibly competitive. More than 300 students applied for the 12 spots in the Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard Program that Ghaderi attends. Most of the funding comes from a combination of grants and matching Harvard funds.

Ghaderi, a rising junior majoring in biochemistry, will spend her summer in Mango’s lab looking at modifications of histones, the proteins that package DNA. Her work and observations will contribute to Mango’s overall research into how cells form the gastrointestinal tract.

“When I first got here, I was so intimidated, because it’s Harvard,” she said. “But everyone has been so nice and supportive. It’s really been a top-notch experience.”

So would she consider Harvard for grad school? Ghaderi doesn’t hesitate before replying, “That would be nice.”