When Becky Ward walked through the airy cafeteria spanning Harvard Medical School’s (HMS) Goldenson and Armenise buildings, she noticed cashier Calixto Sáenz taking a break, a textbook open on the table in front of him.
As she passed, Ward asked Sáenz what he was studying.
“Biopolymers,” he replied.
The answer got the attention of Ward, executive director of the Department of Systems Biology. She told Sáenz about a new facility being developed at HMS — a microfluidics core. The shared facility was intended to connect researchers at the School and affiliated hospitals with new techniques making their way into labs across the country.
Microfluidics allows scientists to conduct microscale research, cutting costs by reducing the volume of chemicals needed, freeing up space so that several experiments can run at once, and even accelerating results. A director had been hired for the initiative, Ward told Sáenz, and the School was considering adding a paid intern to help. Did he want to apply?
Sáenz wasn’t sure — not because he was blind to the opportunity. The problem was time.
A native of Colombia, Sáenz had come to Boston months earlier for a polymer plastics engineering graduate program at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. With no family in the area, he was sharing an East Boston apartment with a friend and taking the T to HMS for his 6 a.m.–3:30 p.m. shift at the Greenhouse Cafe, then boarding a Lowell-bound train for his evening classes. He did homework until 1 a.m. Two or three hours’ sleep a night was routine.
To cap it off, Sáenz already had an internship, albeit unpaid, in the Medical School’s IT department, a post he had landed months earlier with the help of Harvard’s Bridge Program. For some people, the decision to exchange an unpaid internship for a paid one would be simple. But Sáenz’s loyalty to the IT director, Aun Em, who had coached him in English, added to his hesitation.
“He didn’t want to abandon Aun,” said Carol Kolenik, the Bridge Program’s founder and former director. “She said, ‘Take it.’ ”
Sáenz did, and he hasn’t looked back. In the past decade, he’s been promoted from intern to research associate to manager and ultimately to director.
“It’s always a goal to look for people who have a lot of potential but haven’t had a lot of opportunities, so I took a chance on him,” Ward said.
Sáenz’s success — and the personal drive behind it — hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, he was selected to represent Harvard’s 18,000 staff members with remarks at President Larry Bacow’s October installation. The moment proved memorable for more than just Sáenz.
“It was spectacular,” said Laura Lamp, a friend and onetime colleague who guided him through his speech prep. “It blew my mind.”