2013 interns reflect on their summer at HSCI

On July 25, Tirth Patel awoke shortly before six in the morning to the sound of fire alarms in his apartment building. The Northwestern University student rushed out with no time to grab his laptop or other belongings. Within hours, his Somerville residence had burned to the ground. Patel, who had come to Massachusetts to be part of the HSCI Internship Program, was among the 45 people displaced by the blaze.

“It was a little scary at first because I was alone,” he said. “But I knew the people in my program and my lab would be there to support me.”

Instead of returning home, Patel was provided temporary housing at Harvard and finished his summer project barcoding blood stem cells in the Boston Children’s Hospital laboratory of HSCI Principal Faculty member Fernando Camargo, PhD. Patel said he stayed because the internship was unlike anything he’d had before.

“When the interns assemble at HSCI in June, we become a family within the larger Harvard family, and it’s really endearing to see how these ‘strangers’ immediately bond and look out for each other,” said HSCI Program and Administrative Director Maureen Herrmann. “After hearing Tirth’s story, all the other interns in the program were texting me, ‘I have an extra pillow,’ ‘I can share my microfridge,’ ‘Would Tirth like to join us for dinner?’ If that isn’t family, I don’t know what is.”

In 2013, 44 undergraduates were accepted into HSCI’s 10-week summer internship program. Students came from Harvard, as well as other national and international institutions. The internship, one of the most popular in the world for stem cell research, attracted corporate sponsorship for the first time in 2013. Biogen Idec, EMD Millipore, GlaxoSmithKline, the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, and Sanofi Aventis supported the program, both financially and by sharing career advice with the interns.

Harvard senior Marissa Suchyta used her summer to conduct thesis research on salamander regeneration in the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology laboratory of HSCI Co-director Douglas Melton, PhD. Her goal, still ongoing, is to understand what allows an axolotl—a Mexican salamander that can regenerate almost any part of its body—to initiate regeneration of a lost limb, and to identify the factors that ensure the correct cell types are replaced.

As a participant in the HSCI internship program, she was able to pursue her research interests alongside others just as passionate about stem cell biology.

“The opportunity to interact with students from so many different backgrounds and hear their take on research was incredible,” Suchyta said. “The daily interactions you had at the coffee machine transformed into new ideas for experiments.”

International applicant Can Aztekin, who came to the program from Sabanci University in Turkey, was overwhelmed—and a little surprised—by how friendly and warm the people of Harvard were to him. Aztekin credits his mentors in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital laboratory of HSCI Cancer Program Leader Benjamin Ebert, MD, for treating him more like a colleague than an intern. Inspired by the level of determination that his lab mates showed when they approached a question they wanted to solve, he was pushed to do his best.

“I knew that I wanted to pursue my PhD, but I wasn’t sure whether I am ready or not,” Aztekin said. “But with this internship, I became really confident with myself.”