Mohammed Mostajo Radji, a graduate student in Paola Arlotta’s lab in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (HSCRB), has had a very busy last six months. Since July, he has been planning an intense, immersive, one-week science program for high school and college students in Bolivia. During the academic break, Mohammed launched the program, called Clubes de Ciencia Bolivia. He and his colleagues were thrilled with the success of the program, and plan to organize it again next year. Matrix sat down with Mohammed to learn more about the challenges and rewards of his bold vision.
by Irina Cashen
Matrix: What was your inspiration for this huge project?
Mohammed: The inspiration came from my colleagues from Harvard’s departments of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB), and Chemistry and Chemical Biology (CCB), who started a similar program in Mexico. Their driving model for the program was the question, “Why is Latin America so under-represented in science, and what could be an influential factor in changing that?” They decided that exposure to science and meeting scientists was the most important factor for them, and so they wanted to make this happen for more young people like themselves in Latin America. They started with 100 students and six instructors, and over three years their program has grown to 700 students, 42 instructors, and 6 cities. I participated in their program in Mexico, and I wanted to bring something like it to my home country of Bolivia.
Matrix: Tell us about the challenges of organizing this endeavor.
Mohammed: When we started advertising for the program back in August we only had five thousand dollars, and we had to obtain a lot more funding to cover the cost of lab equipment and reagents, as well as flights, lodging, visas, and travel expenses for our instructors. We were fortunate to get lab equipment through The Harvard Life Sciences Outreach Office, and also items such as pens, folders, and flash drives from HSCI, which the students loved! We were also able to use a Harvard University building in Santa Cruz, Bolivia to run the program. I recruited friends who could speak Spanish and were willing to develop a course themselves (with the help of a Teaching Assistant) to come and teach in the program. In the end I was lucky enough to lead the program with Martha Zepeda from MCB, Benjamin Sanchez from CCB, Enrique Garcia from The Broad Institute, Omar Gandarilla from Harvard Medical School, and myself and Leonardo Ferreira from HSCRB.
Matrix: What was the layout of the week-long program?
Mohammed: It was a very busy week. It was 40 hours of classroom time; a three-course program for each of the students followed by homework and projects each night. One of the three courses was "The History within Data: Finding the Higgs Boson." The students learned to program in Python, and then used data from the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The students went from not knowing how to program to analyzing data in 20 dimensions with two million data points at the same time; it was really amazing. The second course was “Entrepreneurship in Science,” based on a HSCRB course. One side project of this course was that students had to develop a product in a week, such as an app or a drone. We had business representatives from Bolivia come and critique the products, (almost like Shark Tank), and a couple of folks actually agreed to invest in some of the projects. And the third course, “Molecular Biology,” was a crash course on MB and lab techniques. We taught the students to look for mutations and conduct Western blots.
The students exceeded all of our expectations. Next year when we run the program we will definitely be adding a neurobiology course, because all of the students were talking about their interest in this in their applications. Another important component of the program was that once a day for an hour we would discuss what it takes to be a scientist – how you apply and write personal statements, and what options there are in the U.S., Brazil, and Europe. Representatives from the U.S. Department of State through the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia came and discussed fellowships and scholarships. We also arranged the program so that the Teaching Assistants for the course were Bolivian PhD students, to encourage them to work with Harvard scientists for the six months prior on developing the course, and then on the ground in Bolivia.
Matrix: This sounds like a wonderful experience to be a part of, with many hours of work on your part. What was your favorite part of the whole thing?
Mohammed: Finally meeting the students and seeing them in action. They were so grateful for our time and the opportunity. We had 500 applicants to the program, and we had to narrow it down to 100 attendees. We were pleased to be able to accept applicants from eight of the nine states in Bolivia, which is a country larger than the state of Texas. The program itself was free to the students, and though we weren’t able to offer funding for housing and transportation, we were able to partner with local governments who paid for those expenses for the accepted students from their states. What we’d really love would be to increase our acceptance to 200 students next year.
We are definitely looking for more funding sources, and for folks who would be interested in being instructors, and who are fluent in Spanish and would be able to develop a course themselves with the help of a teaching assistant. If folks are interested in becoming an instructor, or in helping out with the program, they should contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also visit our Facebook page, Clubes de Ciencia Bolivia, which has some great photos and posts from students and instructors of the program. Clubes de Ciencia Mexico, our model for our program, also has a great short video of interviews with the attendees and instructors of their program, which can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBPWjK1Cgd8. We would love to get more people involved in this very worthy cause.