Students outside Herchel Smith Symposium in 2017

Collaboration and cooperation among scientists are essential for enhancing scientific research, but how does one go about fostering both of these activities? For Dyann Wirth, Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and chair of the Harvard Integrated Life Sciences program, the Herchel Smith PhD Studentship Symposium is one such opportunity. In her opening remarks on the morning of July 20, 2017, she described the symposium as an opportunity to “exchange information and insight, leading to more cooperation in science.”

Now in its 10th year, the Herchel Smith Symposium brings together Herchel Smith Graduate Fellows from Harvard University and the University of Cambridge to present and discuss their graduate research. Over the course of two days, fellows learned about each other’s work through lectures and poster sessions and toured research spaces in both Cambridge, England, and Boston. Cambridge hosted the symposium last year and this summer Harvard—or as it is sometimes called “the other Cambridge”—organized the event.

Global Perspective

Elias Gerrick, a fifth year PhD student in the biological sciences in public health program, kicked off the symposium with a talk about his work in Professor Sarah Fortune’s lab at Harvard Chan. The Fortune Lab studies the mycobacterium that causes tuberculosis, and Gerrick investigates how these mycobacteria respond to stress. The Fortune Lab studies the mycobacterium that causes tuberculosis, and Gerrick investigates how these mycobacteria respond to stress. He has discovered that when the mycobacteria species comes under certain stress conditions, it expresses a type of RNA that can be detected through a computer program he designed.

For Gerrick, the annual symposium allows participants a glimpse into how scientific research is conducted in the UK. Two years ago, University of Cambridge students visited the Broad Institute while in Boston, last year Gerrick and other Harvard students toured the Medical Research Council campus, and this summer, the symposium attendees visited Harvard’s i-lab. “Touring some of the premier research institutes in each country gives us a more informed, global perspective of research and also gives us the information we need to consider doing, for example, a postdoc abroad,” Gerrick says.

“The symposium bridged two great universities and allowed us to listen to awesome science, learn about new research techniques, and network with great people,” says Zhen Du, pointing out what she saw as the highlights of the two-day symposium. Like Gerrick, Du, a member of Professor Laura Itzhaki’s group at the University of Cambridge, also studies stress, albeit in a completely different organism. Du studies naked mole-rats—a fascinating, so-ugly-it’s-cute rodent—and the mechanisms behind their unique resistance to stress, specifically stress from misfolded proteins. “I got some incredible advice from peers after my presentation that I’d love to try out in my future experiments,” Du adds.

Past and Future

Like the fellowship that takes his name, Herchel Smith (1925–2001) has ties to both the UK and the US. Smith completed his undergraduate and PhD degrees at the University of Cambridge before becoming a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford and later an organic chemistry lecturer at the University of Manchester. In 1961, he ventured into industry and joined US-based Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, where his research led to many hormonal therapies, including the first synthetic birth control pill. Following his retirement in 1973, Smith devoted himself to philanthropy, establishing the Herchel Smith endowment that led to the creation of the Herchel Smith Graduate Fellowship Program that has supported a select group of students at both Harvard and Cambridge since 2008.

Cristina Watson, professor of cell and cancer biology and head of the Herchel Smith program at the University of Cambridge, is excited for the future of the program and for the adoption of measures that will enhance the sharing of ideas and information between the two universities.

“One possibility is a short exchange of students between labs to learn specific techniques,” she explains. Though she has only recently joined the program, Watson, who studies stem cells in mammary glands, is excited to host the event next year. “Between the scientific excellence of the talks and posters, the enthusiastic interactions among the students, and the wonderful welcome we had at Harvard, I have not enjoyed a meeting so much in a long time.”

Annual Herchel Smith Symposium Provides Global Opportunity

Photos by Molly Akin