Science & Tech

This is what a scientist looks like

Some of the researchers featured in the "I Am A Scientist" project.

Images, video courtesy of The Plenary

long read

Project aims to give young students real-life STEM role models

The idea is simple: Students who see themselves in science are more likely to imagine themselves working in the field.

To that end, a project called “I Am A Scientist” is giving middle and high school students the opportunity to interact with modern-day researchers — breaking down barriers like race, gender, and personal interests. It provides teachers with toolkits containing stories, posters, and career resources showcasing 22 scientists’ range of personalities, backgrounds, pathways, and passions. Many of those portrayed have Harvard connections.

“I think that a lot of us have gone onto Google search images and the first thing that comes up when you search for a scientist is a caricature of an old white man with maybe tufts of white hair on the side and glasses falling off his nose,” said Ayanna Thomas, a Tufts psychologist featured in the project.

The spark for the project came in 2016 when Nabiha Saklayen, Ph.D. ’17, wrote a blog post about not fitting into society’s dated ideas of what a physicist looks like, drawing the attention of her longtime friend, Stephanie Fine Sasse, founder and director of educational design studio The Plenary. The women found that they had faced many similar challenges, despite coming from different fields and backgrounds. Their commitment to reducing the barriers for future generations combined with their belief that STEM benefits from diversity birthed the initiative.

Twelve of the 22 scientists featured in the project are Harvard-trained or -affiliated. Below are snippets of their stories.

A world traveler and adventurer committed to using science to keep all communities healthy

Noor Al-Alusi

University of California, San Francisco

Harvard connection: Studied at T.H. Chan School of Public Health

“I have a black belt in Taekwondo. When I was in high school, I was on the pole vaulting team. I am driven by a deep desire to help others. Sometimes I talk in my sleep. I believe that all people have a fundamental right to health care.”

Her work: During the Zika epidemic, Al-Alusi met with communities hardest hit by the virus, using data and mathematical models to keep them safe and healthy.

She wants to know: What makes diseases spread? How do we make sure everyone has what they need to fight disease?

Background: Al-Alusi was born in California but her parents emigrated from Iraq. This experience provided her with an understanding of the health needs of the immigrant community.

Loves: Human rights, adventure, fashion, public health, travel

Learn more about Al-Alusi and epidemiology.

An adventurous sports fan studying how brains grow and regenerate

Ryoji Amamoto

The Cepko Lab, Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School

“I’m a huge sports fan. I study animals that can regrow their brains. I’ve traveled to 40+ countries. I’m a licensed scuba diver but a terrible swimmer. I moved to the U.S. at 8 and couldn’t speak the language. I hated science in high school.”

His work: Amamoto studies the tiny but amazing brains of animals that have a superpower — the ability to regenerate. He learns what factors help these special brains regrow, so that we can try to treat diseases like Parkinson’s and damage like concussions in the human brain by regrowing or reconnecting our own lost neurons.

He wants to know: How is it possible for some animals to regenerate organs? Can we find a way for humans to regenerate their own brains?

Background: Amamoto lived in Japan until age 8 when his family moved to Chicago. He had to overcome a language barrier and shift between speaking English at school and Japanese at home. The youngest of three siblings, he was always competitive and got involved in basketball and volleyball.

Loves: Philosophy, adventure, volleyball, classic guitar, people-watching

Learn more about Amamoto and neurobiology.

Ryoji Amamoto.

A soccer-playing musician who wants to know what makes humans so unique

Rodrigo Braga

Cognitive neuroscientist

Harvard connection: Former postdoctoral fellow, Department of Psychology

“I love playing soccer. I got in trouble a lot in school. I was born in Brazil but grew up in London. Playing music or video games helps me relax. I’m shy around new people. I study the human brain so we can better understand ourselves.”

His work: Braga uses fMRI, which is a tool that lets us see the structure of the brain and how active different parts of the brain are when we’re doing different things, like daydreaming, math, or looking at pictures of other people. He looks for patterns that can tell us which parts of the brain communicate with each other, which we call a “network.”

He wants to know: How is the brain organized? How do different parts of the brain talk to each other to create consciousness, or “us”?

Background: Braga was born in Brazil but grew up in the U.K. He was always getting in trouble for missing class, drawing, or disrupting other students. He once got a prize for least attendance but wasn’t there to receive it. He always had a little bit of “imposter syndrome.” He didn’t question his core abilities, but struggled with his memory and felt like he couldn’t think as quickly as people around him.

Loves: Philosophy, soccer, video games, playing guitar, spending time with loved ones

Learn more about Braga and cognitive neuroscience.

Rodrigo Braga.

An outdoors-loving explorer who is building bridges between the past and the present

Wade Campbell

Doctoral student, Department of Anthropology

“I enjoy exploring landscapes. I’m a good whistler. I grew up in the Four Corners area of Arizona and New Mexico and am a member of the Navajo Nation. I like to write in cursive and take notes by hand. I love gardening, hiking, and soccer.”

His work: Campbell studies the history of the American Southwest. By studying records, land, and artifacts, he can better understand how interactions between the Navajo, Spanish, and other groups that lived there changed the local culture, beliefs, and practices.

He wants to know: What was the historical relationship between the Natives and the Spanish? What happens physically and culturally, when two worlds collide?

Background: Campbell grew up in the Four Corners region of Arizona and New Mexico and is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is mixed-race — Navajo and Anglo — and, from a young age knew he didn’t fit into a specific mold. He liked to explore and became very interested on the beautiful land he was living on and its history.

Loves: Biking, soccer, camping, global music, sci-fi and fantasy

Learn more about Campbell and archaeology.

Wade Campbell.

A party-loving doctor who’s fighting to cure cancer in women

Yamicia Connor

Physician Scientist
Beth Israel

“I once competed in a robot competition. I love Beyoncé. I started a tutoring organization to support students. I’m not the best speller. I love grilling, cooking, and hanging out at home. I’m a doctor who studies ways to improve women’s health.”

Her work: Connor is a doctor at a hospital in Boston where she studies cancer cells in a lab using microscopes and computers, but also works with patients to test new cancer treatments.

She wants to know: How do we tackle cancers that specifically affect women? How do we use medicine to improve the lives of women?

Background: Growing up in Florida, Connor was a serious kid who stressed about the little things. She was into her schoolwork and loved to put on plays with her friends where she orchestrated the whole thing and assigned everyone a role.

Loves: Entertaining friends, volleyball, cooking, relaxing at home, supporting students

Learn more about Connor and physician science.

Yamicia Connor.

A marathon-running champion for women who uses data to improve public health

Francesca Dominici

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; co-director, Harvard Data Science Initiative

“I love fashion. I believe women in power have a responsibility to help each other. I love to run and have completed over 12 marathons. I’m a mom. I was the first person in my family to go to college.”

Her work: Dominici works in a lab filled with people, charts, graphs, and computers. She analyzes data and looks for patterns that teach us about what is and what is not healthy in our everyday lives. She is particular interested in pollution, which can mean air quality or even the level of noise in our environment.

She wants to know: What environmental factors threaten our health? How do we design policies to keep us safe?

Background: Dominici grew up in Italy in a small neighborhood outside of Rome. She learned to cook from her grandmother, and traveled often to everywhere from Africa to South America. She became the first person in her family to attend college.

Loves: Fashion, marathons, cooking, parties and entertaining, mentorship and supporting women

Learn more about Dominici and biostatistics.

Francesca Dominici.

A nature-loving professor and museum curator who is fascinated by the beauty and evolution of life on Earth

Scott Edwards

Harvard University & Museum of Comparative Zoology

“My training as a biologist helped me see the beauty in the world. I believe the line between biology and the arts is thin. I play the drums. One of my goals is to beat my brother at ping-pong. I am the only scientist in my family.”

His work: Edwards works in many settings: in the outdoors, searching for specimens all around the world; in a lab, where he analyzes blood and tissue samples to study genes; and at a museum, where he manages a collection of birds.

He wants to know: How did birds and other forms of life evolve? What can their genes tell us about where they came from?

Background: Edwards was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, but grew up in Manhattan. He was a happy-go-lucky kid who had a relatively stress-free childhood. He and his brother used to invent ridiculous games. When he was 11 or 12, his neighbor took him bird-watching and he loved it.

Loves: Nature, hiking, 1970s pop music, conservation, science education

Learn more about Edwards and ornithology.

Scott Edwards.

A singing, dancing biologist who wants to understand where we came from

Cassandra Extavour

Developmental biologist
Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology

“I am classical singer. I wanted to be a pastry chef as a kid. In middle school, I never showed much interest in math or science. I love to salsa. I worked at McDonald’s to pay for school. I study crickets to learn about genetics.”

Her work: Extavour runs a lab filled with white boards, microscopes, petri dishes, and lots of cages and containers. She studies crickets, spiders, and other bugs to better understand how some of our most important cells behave.

She wants to know: How do humans and other living things work? And how did we get that way?

Background: Extavour was born in Canada but has roots in Trinidad. She had a diverse childhood filled with music, art, food, activism, and lots of family. As a child, she wanted to dance, sing, and bake, and had little interest in science. She came to science accidentally after acing a math test in high school. She decided to go to college but needed to pay for it herself. She had part-time jobs starting in high school working at the library, McDonald’s, and as a secretary.

Loves: Social activism, sci-fi movies, salsa dancing, singing classical music, cooking and baking

Learn more about Extavour and developmental biology.

Cassandra Extavour.

A soccer-playing, art-loving biochemical engineer who is changing the way we think about 3D printing

Daniele Foresti

Mechanical engineer
John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

“I can be a total drama queen. I loved playing Legos as a kid. My mom came from a family of farmers and my dad worked in a pasta factory. I know how to repair a motorcycle because I used to fix my own. I won a science-inspired art competition.”

His work: Foresti works in a lab filled with 3D printers, bottles, jars of different liquids, and unusual machines for testing. He uses scientific principles to invent a way to use sound waves to create precise droplets of nearly any liquid. This technology has a lot of applications, and he developed a way to use it to make it easier to 3D print with a wide range of materials for use in everything from medicine to foods to cosmetics to art.

He wants to know: How do we create tools that allow us to print any type of ink onto any type of surface?

Background: Raised in Italy, Foresti didn’t expect to go to college. His dad loved tinkering in small shops, which inspired him to think about different ways of making things. His first job was as a dishwasher when he was still young to help his family cover costs.

Loves: Science art, trendy hats and glasses, documentaries, pick-up soccer games, advocating for economic equality.

Learn more about Foresti and mechanical engineering

Daniele Foresti.

A music-loving sports fanatic who creates new tools for studying why we age

David Kelley

Computational biologist

Harvard connection: Former postdoctoral research fellow in stem cell and regenerative biology

“I got into statistics so I could beat my friends at fantasy sports. I play hockey every weekend. I used to play semi-professional poker. I love hiking and going to concerts. I use machine learning to better understand our genes.”

His work: Kelley uses math, computer science, and a lot of coding. He uses machine learning to train computers to analyze really large data sets. He creates programs that can look for patterns across thousands of genomes.

He wants to know: Can we use machine learning to understand how life works at the genetic level? And use that knowledge to live longer, healthier lives?

Background: Kelley grew up in a small town in New Jersey. He loved playing sports with friends, especially hockey and baseball, and got into statistics to beat his friends at fantasy sports. His parents were both mathematicians so he had a lot of exposure to math at home.

Loves: Playing hockey and snowboarding, going to concerts, hiking and swimming, podcasts, fantasy football, and baseball with friends

Learn more about Kelley and computational biology.

David Kelley.

A surfing, dancing entrepreneur who uses lasers to create tiny technologies for the next generation of health care

Marinna Madrid


Harvard connection: Earned Ph.D. in applied physics here

“I thought I was going to be a journalist. I have four sisters. I try to learn a new instrument every year. Community college introduced me to physics. I was a dancer in high school. I’m a terrible cook and almost blew myself up once.”

Her work: Madrid works as both a scientist and an entrepreneur. She developed special laser-based devices that might make it possible to take your cells out if they are sick, put them on a really tiny device, and deliver medicine into them. Then it would be possible to give these cells back to you to cure the disease.

She wants to know: How can we apply physics to improve health care? Can we use science to create new cells when we need them?

Background: Madrid loved to clean and organize growing up. She was excited when her mom let her do the dishes. She liked to read a lot, especially Goosebumps or Nancy Drew books. She loved music and dancing and decided to study journalism at NYU but found it was a bad fit, dropped out, and moved home in the middle of her first year. She started over at a community college, where she performed well in physics, biology, and math courses.

Loves: Mexican food, hiphop dance, animals, learning new instruments, surfing

Learn more about Madrid and biophysics.

Marinna Madrid.

An indie rocker and Photoshop enthusiast who uses mathematics to fight deadly diseases

Pardis Sabeti

Medical geneticist
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

“I study things that are so small you need a microscope to see them. My family immigrated from Iran. I love having pet rats. My body is filled with metal pins and plates. I sing in a rock band. I helped lead the fight against the Ebola outbreak.”

Her work: Animals, plants, humans, and even microbes all have genes that contain lots of important information. By studying genetic factors of diseases, Sabeti can better understand how they evolved, what puts people at risk, and how to protect us. Instead of just using the tools that already exist, Sabeti uses mathematics and computers to invent new tools that are even better at answering these important questions.

She wants to know: What can DNA teach us about viruses? How do we detect pathogens and prevent deadly outbreaks?

Background: Sabeti was born in Tehran, Iran, and her family immigrated when she was young. She was a good kid and also a bit of an oddball, so she didn’t always fit in. She loved games and playing sports like football, but also loved Math Olympiad.

Loves: Being in a rock band, making up new games, playing volleyball and tennis, my label maker, creating funny holiday cards

Learn more about Sabeti and medical genetics.

Pardis Sabeti.