HIP Mentor Spotlight with Amar Sahay

For 10 weeks every summer, talented undergraduates from Harvard College and all over the world are invited to work in various HSCI faculty members’ labs as part of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute Internship Program (HIP). Before Thanksgiving break this year, Matrix travelled to Massachusetts General Hospital to speak with Amar Sahay, PhD, and his three postdoctoral fellows – Kathleen McAvoy, Nannan Guo, and Antoine Besnard, each of whom directly mentored at least one HIPster (as we affectionately call the interns).

(Left to right: Antoine Besnard, Kathleen McAvoy, Amar Sahay, and Nannan Guo)

Matrix: Sahay, you’ve had interns in your lab for the last 4 years.  What keeps you so involved in the program? 

Sahay: For me – well, when I took this job I wasn’t going into it with the expectation that I would mentor so many undergraduates.  But to see them become so empowered as scientists – that’s what is so rewarding for me. I love watching them become more sophisticated with their knowledge as they learn about the scientific process and discuss data with me until they become autonomous and work independently on their own theses or papers. Watching that growth gives me more joy than anything else. We’ve had such great results that I’ve invited three interns back for the summers following their HIP program.

Matrix: I can see why you hosted two HIP interns this past summer. Can you tell me about the projects they worked on?  

Sahay:  Alexia Zagouras’ project involved looking at how stress hormones like corticosterone affect neural stem cell homeostasis.  That’s important to understand because in the brain our ability to generate new brain stem cells or neurons is intimately dependent on circumstances in our environment; therefore, it necessitates an understanding of how the experience of an organism influences the neural stem cells in the brain to make the decision to produce new neurons.  So she validated a complex system of genetic tools that we’re using to do this, which I know will impact the project even after she is gone from the lab. Alexia, who is a Harvard undergraduate, is also forging ahead studying corticosterone for her senior thesis.

And Pakanat Deschartanachart’s project was to figure out how to rejuvenate a part of the brain important for learning and memory, using new neurons.  He was an exceptionally bright medical student coming from an environment in Thailand where residents in his shadowing process discouraged him from thinking outside the box. When he came here he was almost starving for intellectual nourishment, and now he’s a coauthor on a paper for Neuron. He generated a whole figure over the summer, and he’d had no basic science before he arrived.  When he finished the program he announced that after he finishes his medical program and residency in Thailand, he wants to come to the United States for a PhD, and then go back and possibly go into neurosurgery in his native country.

Matrix:  It sounds like a very busy summer for the interns! It’s amazing that so much can transpire for them in just 10 weeks.  Mentors, can you tell me about some of the biggest challenges for you in your positions?

Kathleen: I would say making sure that the students are intellectually challenged and truly understand what they’re doing. They come in and hit the ground running. In the beginning, the first few weeks are hard because everyone has a different baseline of what they know, and you have to figure that out. But the students have been uniformly enthusiastic about the science and willing to work. Everyone fits really well in the lab, and they’ve all made an impact.  The most rewarding part for me has been watching them grow. By the end of the summer they’re suggesting how to use techniques that they didn’t even know about when they started. 

Nannan:  I’m not a native speaker so the language challenge is a big component for me.  Undergrads are also very busy, but when they’re motivated they will put in extra time to work on projects that are important to them. Finding the right motivation for them is very important.  Personality can be a challenge, too – you need to adjust your way of interacting with different folks.  You also need to give them space to develop their own minds. You can start them with a question, but they to need to find what drives them.   

Antoine:  It’s important to ensure that the interns aren’t working blindly. A lot of folks are willing to work very hard, but it’s more interesting and challenging when you can discuss with them the science behind what they’re doing and ask if they enjoy it. They pick up everything very fast.

Matrix:  You sound like a very happy family here.  Is there anything you’d like to tell folks out there who are thinking about becoming mentors, but might be hesitant?

Nannan:  The mentors always ask each other for help and advice; it’s a team effort. We collaborate on everything, so you’re never alone.

Antoine:   I would say that science can’t be done in a cave, and that teaching and listening skills are prerequisites for being a scientist – everything is not all just done at the bench.  You need to be able to motivate, explain, and sometimes handle difficult situations if the experiment doesn’t work.  So you need to learn how to troubleshoot and be patient and supportive. These are all important skills you can acquire as a mentor. 

Kathleen:  People who haven’t mentored might not realize how much you get out of it.  The more you do it, the better you get. And for my own project, three of the four students I had as interns ended up as authors on my paper. They really contributed and were very valuable to me. You get benefits on a scientific and personal level; it’s win-win!

Matrix:  Well you’ve convinced me! But can I sign up to have you guys as my mentors? This conversation has made me feel all warm and fuzzy!

See also: Spotlight