In the summer of 2020, Rabsa Sikder and Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, BS, stood at opposite ends of their college years. As Sikder was preparing to matriculate at Harvard College, Uwamanzu-Nna, a recent alumna, was bidding her undergraduate years farewell.
For each student, life’s next stage was imminent, but not yet at hand. Amidst the pandemic, Sikder would be beginning her undergraduate pre-medical coursework remotely, from her home in Buffalo, NY. Uwamanzu-Nna, gearing up to apply to MD-PhD programs, was continuing her engineering research in the lab of David Walt, PhD, of the Department of Pathology, whose work improves diagnostic capabilities with tools that can detect minute concentrations of molecules that may herald future illnesses.
Their transitions began at a moment when George Floyd’s murder and COVID-19 disparities illuminated the impact of racism on health in Black communities, and for Uwamanzu-Nna, it prompted deep reflection on the kind of work she wished to pursue.
“I was personally grappling with the question of how to actively engage with the realities of my community, from within the lab,” said Uwamanzu-Nna, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. “I enjoyed pursuing pathology research to address inequities in disease diagnostics, and wanted to empower more students, particularly those from marginalized communities, to similarly bridge activism with research.”
Uwamanzu-Nna started working in the Walt lab during her junior year of college, and her senior thesis evolved out of the projects she began there. Since graduating, she has served as a research assistant in the lab, which, in addition to conducting pioneering work in diagnostics, supports the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation. She envisioned establishing a program that could tap into the potential of Harvard undergraduates by bringing them into labs like her own. The program would offer mentorship opportunities to students who had never encountered research before — for students like Sikder, who immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 2016, and attended, in her own words, “a very small high school where research was never something we ever discussed.”
Uwamanzu-Nna brought the idea to Walt, and through his sponsorship, the Translational Research for Untapped Science Talent (TRUST) Fellowship was born.
“The program is intended to increase the participation of underrepresented students in science, expose them to health care and help prepare them for their future studies in science,” Walt explained. “This is a great way to formalize the relationship and connection between the university and the Harvard-affiliated hospitals. There’s a need to expand this link.”
By August 2020, Uwamanzu-Nna was working to assemble a team of faculty members, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students committed to TRUST’s mission of cultivating talent across the social spectrum. Translational research, with its unique ability to directly benefit patient populations, was a special focus for the program.
Walt’s lab identified three projects for undergraduates to spearhead through the fellowship, ranging from detecting SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and antigens to evaluating vaccine efficacy. A third project — which Sikder will be undertaking with research fellow Gina Wang, PhD — aims to develop an ultrasensitive test to detect NUT midline carcinomas, which are lethal and rarely diagnosed.
Li Chai, MD, Guillermo Garcia-Cardeña, PhD, and Michael Miller, MD, PhD, all of the Pathology Department, also each agreed to host an undergraduate in their respective labs, and five post-graduate and graduate researchers also agreed to work with the students. Uwamanzu-Nna began spreading word of the program through Harvard networks, and by mid-January, she had received nearly 40 applications for the six spots.
With in-person access to laboratories limited by the pandemic, the selected fellows spent the spring of 2021 exploring research in other ways. They learned about literature reviews and research proposals, gained confidence reading scientific papers and developed science communication skills through routine presentations. In more informal gatherings, they discussed topics like imposter syndrome, careers involving research and how to navigate their undergraduate years.
“Our aim was to help the students acquire the intangible skills required to conduct research, because it’s not only about benchwork,” Uwamanzu-Nna said. “In the future, the virtual component of the program may not be necessary, but we have recognized the advantage of not immediately jumping into lab work by gradually acquainting students with research concepts. This has been especially useful since four of the six TRUST fellows had no research experience prior to the program, so I want to see how we can incorporate this going forward.”
A More Inclusive Infrastructure
While the TRUST fellows were able to watch their mentors conduct lab work via Zoom, rendering abstract procedures more concrete, the mentors also encouraged them to make the projects feel like their own.
Harvard sophomore Megan Curry will be working under Garcia-Cardeña to engineer “mini-hearts” that can help researchers study the effects of blood flow on the vasculature as it relates to heart disease. Garcia-Cardeña introduced Curry to the field of cardiovascular biology through existing scientific literature, and as she read, she began to identify particular genes she wishes to study further.
“To me, that’s the perfect outcome. The most important thing that you can do for a student is guide them to a place where they can start to be comfortable with their knowledge, and then begin to open doors and windows so that they can explore and find their own niche,” Garcia-Cardeña said. “These students are going to become medical students, fellows, and eventually faculty, and if we support a program like TRUST, it will feed a more inclusive biomedical research infrastructure in the future.”
Following the pilot phase of the project, the TRUST Program’s founders plan to expand it to other departments and faculty at the Brigham.
This summer, all six TRUST fellows will be working in their respective laboratories at the Brigham. After a semester spent shadowing the lab’s work on a computer screen, Sikder is looking forward to gaining access to the Brigham and her own set of pipettes. Exciting, too, is the chance to finally move to Harvard’s campus, which she has never visited, and settle in before the start of her sophomore year.
At Harvard’s Summer School, she’ll be studying organic chemistry while conducting research in Walt’s lab. She hopes to continue working there going forward, and already has thoughts on pursuing a senior thesis related to pulmonary fibrosis. Medical school is still in the cards, but the experiences of the past semester have also encouraged her to keep an open mind.
“I think I want to do research in an international, global health setting,” Sikder said, noting her firsthand exposure to Bangladesh’s health care challenges. “To return there next summer, or maybe winter break — that’s another plan.”
Uwamanzu-Nna, too, is continuing to chart out her path in research and medicine.
“I envision a life where I am in this space, and I know that mentoring people who identify in similar ways to me will be a crucial and integral part of my career,” she said. “But I’ve also realized that it’s not solely my responsibility as a Black person to fix the problems in our society, and that’s where TRUST comes in: we can engage the faculty who have power right now, even if they do not look or identify like me, to play an active role in this work, because we can’t wait.”